Susan Patterson watches the new Blu-ray edition of Robert Altman’s Nashville.
Nashville follows 24 characters with interwoven storylines over five days in the eponymous city, culminating in a political rally for never-seen independent presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, five days later – but the facts around the film’s making are at least as interesting as the fictional tale it tells.
United Artists had initially asked Altman to make a film about Nashville based on the novel The Great Southern Amusement Company. Altman didn’t like the script, but promised a different film about Nashville if United would finance his 1974 film Thieves Like Us. While he was making Thieves Like Us in Mississippi he sent his script supervisor, Joan Tewkesbury, to Nashville to research the script for the new film, and Tewkesbury’s experiences there (a car pile-up on her way from the airport, encounters with various characters savoury and otherwise) form the spine of the plot. The deal with United Artists fell through when Altman fell out with them, not for the first time, and he took the project to ABC. Tewkesbury’s interview in the disc extras hints that she didn’t necessarily see eye to eye with Altman either.
The film was developed and made during the Watergate hearings, which caught Altman’s eye enough to form the basis of his 1984 picture Secret Honor, but although the film uses as its connecting thread the populist campaign of Hal Phillip Walker and his “Replacement Party” to bring all these characters together, nothing very eloquent is said about American politics. Walker’s messages are tinnily blared out from his campaign vehicle; singer Barbara Jean’s otherwise unscrupulous manager husband argues that she should perform in front of his campaign banner with no solid reason given, but these ideas go nowhere. America never elects independent candidates, so why are all these people pulled in by the promise of Hal Phillip Walker? The climax of the film comes out of nowhere, and makes no real sense of the 155 minutes that went before it.
Many of the 24 characters are caricatures, particularly the English BBC reporter, Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) who flits from around the screen saying ridiculous things in one of the oddest English accents ever heard, and Winifred, who escapes from her husband to pursue her dreams of being a singer, and stands out as cartoonish with her ripped stockings and overacted desperation. Some, like political campaigner John Triplette (Michael Murphy) and Lily Tomlin’s Linnea, the white lead singer in a black gospel choir (why?) take their roles more seriously, and handle the improvised scripting more professionally, rather than fighting with their colleagues over who gets more screen time. Linnea’s character, with two deaf children, was created for Louise Fletcher, who had deaf parents, but given to Tomlin: a fact which Fletcher only discovered later. Instead, that year she played Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She never spoke to Altman again.
Where Nashville shines is when Ronee Blackley and Keith Carradine perfom their own songs. Carradine is faultless as the vain womaniser, who listens to his own tunes after having sex with yet another woman. When he sings I’m Easy it’s not difficult to see why the song won an Oscar. Blackley plays the broken Barbara Jean perfectly, not overplaying her hand, but quietly conveying that her talent and its manipulation by others has damaged her.
Women don’t have a great time in Nashville. They are humiliated, used, or ridiculous. Suleen (Gwen Wells), wants to be a singer, but doesn’t have the talent and ends up stripping. Barbara Jean’s breakdowns, Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley)’s implied alcoholism; Winifred’s frowsiness; Opal snobbish and deluded; Martha’s complete lack of character except as a groupie. None of the male characters suffer the same humiliations, excepting the two who are cuckolded by their wives.
The disc comes with strict instructions on how to maintain its 2.35:1 aspect ratio without ‘a distortion [or] corruption of the original artwork, which travesty the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space’. The sound is woolly, with characters talking over each other, but clearer during the music. Extras include two interviews with Altman, one with Tewkesbury, and one with Michael Murphy.
In addition to its Oscar-winning musical number, Nashville received nominations for best picture (which it lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), best director and two for best supporting actress (Blakley and Tomlin), as well as nine Golden Globe nominations. Whether or not the politics internal to the movie are as fascinating as those that arose from its telling, something about it clearly spoke to America that year.
Nashville is released today by Eureka! Entertainment in a dual format Blu-ray & DVD edition as part of their Masters of Cinema Series.