Two Dissolve writers keep the Nashville conversation going...
Keith: There’s so much going on in Nashville, Robert Altman’s mammoth 1975 film, that maybe we should start with the Altmanesque move of zooming in on one moment. Specifically, let’s talk about the late-film scene in which Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) performs before a crowd of horny, drunken men at a fundraiser for the third-party political candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Expecting a chance to sing before a crowd that expects her to strip, Sueleen’s the victim of, at best, a misunderstanding, having been sent to the benefit by a booker who knows she can’t, in the words of one character, “sing a lick.” But Sueleen doesn’t know she can’t sing, and doesn’t expect to have to take her clothes off. She takes the gig expecting it will serve as a rung on her ascent. Instead, it ends in humiliation.
Nashville has mostly played Sueleen’s delusions for laughs up to this point. She’s an awful singer. (And, by all accounts, so was actress Gwen Welles. It’s tough to fake being that bad.) She’s also a deluded dimwit. But in this scene, Nashville puts the focus on her pain and humiliation—and with it, her humanity. In the documentary The Making Of Nashville, included on the Criterion Collection edition of the film, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury talks about that scene being “the essence of every single character in this movie.” She goes on to explain that everyone takes stock of how much of themselves they’re willing to give away for success, only to realize too late that the price is going to be more than they’re willing to pay.
Not to contradict the screenwriter of the movie, but I’m not sure that applies to every character. Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal, a self-proclaimed BBC reporter, is defined by her absence of self-awareness. But it’s certainly a pattern that recurs throughout the film, and one whose ugliness Altman doesn’t attempt to paper over. In the same documentary, Alan Rudolph, who worked as an assistant director on Nashville, says that scene “made you, and everybody in the audience, feel absolutely unclean.” Nashville’s depiction of the moment is unsparing. When it cuts away from Welles’ awful performance and, later, her sad striptease, it’s mostly to show characters whose differing reactions only make it worse. Del Reese (Ned Beatty), a lawyer, eats it up. (Later, he’ll put the moves on Sueleen as she remains paralyzed in humiliation.) Next to him, Walker campaign rep John Triplette (Michael Murphy) realizes the evening has gone too far yet does nothing to stop it. The film implicates them and it implicates viewers, who are made complicit in the moment by previously finding Sueleen ridiculous.
That willingness to provoke discomfort, which Nashville returns to again and again, is part of what makes the film so powerful. It balances a sharp, satirical wit with a feel for its characters’ humanity. The pint-sized, bewigged, Nudie suit-clad Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a ridiculous egotist happy to pander to his audience’s basest emotions, but his final moments on screen at the Parthenon are some of the film’s most moving. Nashville also—and after multiple viewings over several years, I still don’t understand how—never shortchanges any of its 24 central characters. Everyone from Haven to Jeff Goldblum’s silent Tricycle Man get their moments, and a sense of an inner life we never get to see. What does Linnea (Lily Tomlin) feel as she leaves Tom’s (Keith Carradine) room? I’ve seen this film I don’t know how many times and I still couldn’t tell you.
How about you, Genevieve? Is there a single moment that doubles as the film in miniature to you?
Genevieve: One moment stands out to me, and actually mirrors the one you highlight in interesting ways: Barbara Jean’s (Ronee Blakley) disastrous Opryland performance, the one that prompts her husband-manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) to commit her to sing at the Walker benefit, thus sealing her sad fate. Prior to the performance, it’s not entirely clear how much of Barbara Jean’s behavior is attributable to self-deluded divahood and how much is genuine emotional damage. Her hospital-room argument with Barnett, combined with her fairly silly portrayal up to that point, suggests the former—“You’re makin’ me ruin my nail-polish job!”—and Barnett’s allusions to her “goin’ nutsy on me” and “havin’ one of them nervous breakdowns again” makes it seem like it could all be part of an ongoing bid for attention. But Barbara Jean’s nonsensical rambling at the Opryland—culminating in her clucking like a chicken, for God’s sake—make it clear she’s not savvy, she’s legitimately messed-up. And Barnett’s reaction to the situation, to hustle her off stage and berate the audience for making that “little girl” cry, then volunteering her for the doomed gig she wasn’t even supposed to take, shows how little control she has over her career, and her life. Barbara Jean has been entirely objectified and infantilized—right down to her angelic, nightgown-like dress and the bows in her hair—by not just Barnett, but the entire industry, which makes her eventual fate all the more tragic, not to mention pointed.
Barbara Jean provides an interesting counterpoint to Sueleen: Both women are manipulated and taken advantage of by those purporting an interest and investment in their careers; but Barbara Jean is talented where Sueleen is clearly not, and infantilized where Sueleen is sexualized. (There’s definitely a bit of virgin-whore commentary going on there.) And both women are trotted out as product, not as artists, intended to be scrutinized and consumed by an audience that has no regard for them as people, only as objects of amusement. The way the crowd turns on Barbara Jean almost immediately, compared to the relentless wave of sympathy and well-wishes she receives while in the hospital, speaks to how fickle fans can be toward musicians they view as “theirs.” Taken together, the scenes of Sueleen at the fundraiser and Barbara Jean at the Opryland provide the tragic beating heart beneath Nashville’s lively satirical bite.
But Sueleen’s fundraiser performance is also interesting for what it’s juxtaposed against: Tom’s club performance where he debuts the song “I’m Easy.” On the surface, it’s amusing to see all the women Tom has seduced—Opal, his bandmate Mary (Cristina Raines), stick-figure groupie L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), and Linnea, whom he seems to view as his biggest conquest—interpret the song as being about them. It’s a great little performance moment from all the actors involved, and really gets at the interwoven nature of Nashville’s plot and characterizations. But it’s also interesting for the double meaning in Tom’s lyrics, winking at his lothario nature within a romantic ballad. In a way, Tom is being sexualized (or sexualizing himself) the same way Sueleen is during her performance, but the difference in their gender and the control each has over their respective situation—he’s a star, and a respected musician, she is not—colors the nature of each performance in dramatically different fashion.
I feel like I could write an entire dissertation on gender and power in this movie, but there is a lot more to cover, so let’s move on to something a little less loaded (or maybe not): The setting. Back in 2013, Noel Murray offered a former resident’s perspective on the film’s portrayal of the town and its music—neither of which he deemed particularly accurate—but after watching Nashville, I was struck less by its sense of place than its sense of time. Having been born almost a decade after Nashville came out, I have little personal connection to the era in which it’s set, but found myself fairly transfixed by the 1970s-ness of it all; it’s unlike most portrayals of the decade I’ve seen, yet undeniably part of the times. Keith, as someone slightly—only slightly!—older, and more tapped into 1970s cinema in general, how do you think the film reflects and portrays its era?
Keith: I’m just old enough that this movie fires off some memories of the era. (That my parents and I spent a fair amount of time watching country music performances on TV doesn’t hurt.) And I’m exactly the right age to feel a bit of a personal connection to all those shots of children in the audience. This, the film seems to be saying, is the crazy world these kids are going to grow up in. And then we did.
But, beyond my fuzzy memories, the film squares with the 1970s I’ve since read about and encountered via films, music, and other pieces of ’70s culture. That opening scene where Haven—trying to record a sappy, pandering, Bicentennial-themed song—freaks out on a session pianist named Frog (played by music supervisor Richard Baskin) and asks for Pig instead speaks to a larger divide. Frog, who’s a generation younger than Haven, has long hair that marks him as part of the counterculture. Pig refers to Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who was at that point one of the most in-demand Nashville session musicians and had been for over a decade (and would be for decades to come). There’s the establishment and there’s what’s coming next, and neither knows how to deal with the other. Factor in Hal Phillip Walker’s Replacement Party campaign, which traffics in nostalgic vagaries (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”) and weirdly specific, unrealistic ideas, like kicking lawyers out of government, and it plays like the early stages of the political and cultural divide we’re living in today. (Now that I think of it, Nashville would make a great pairing with Rick Perlstein’s books.)
One of the smartest elements of the film is the way it throws in a few characters who can tie all the different locations and characters together. Tricycle Man drifts through many scenes, as does Opal, whose defining quality seems to be her ability to misinterpret everything she sees. Even as Barbara Jean goes through her Opryland meltdown, Opal is still trying to interview Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), missing the story unfolding right in front of her. (Then again, everyone misses what’s up with Kenny (David Hayward), who’s sitting next to Glenn the whole time.) Opal can’t conceal her racism or her classism, (“I make it a point never to gossip with servants.”) One of the film’s sliest jokes is that, because we only have her words as her credentials, she could be a BBC reporter or she could just be another crazy. Either seems equally plausible.
That’s partly her fault. Opal makes me laugh, but she may be the most awful character in the film, which has its share of contenders for the title. But she’s also an example of how you can go to a place, look around, do your best to soak it up, even make a movie about it, and still never really know it. Nashville is a portrait of the city made by outsiders and it never really pretends to be anything else. If anything, Opal is a bit of self-critique woven into the film, which may not get the city entirely right but at least doesn’t get it that wrong. That said, I think it’s better than a film made by insiders could have been. Tewkesbury and Altman work in broad strokes, but they’re broad strokes that capture a larger truth. Even the style suggests an outsider looking in. So many scenes feature busy compositions and overlapping conversations, then, as Andreas points out in the Keynote, the film zooms in on one telling detail that contributes to the larger story. To loop back to Noel’s piece, and to the larger point of that piece, it’s true without being accurate.
And to loop back to a point I made: Most awful character? Factoring out Kenny, I’d say the candidates would be Opal and Tom, though you’d have to put Barnett into the mix, too, right?
Genevieve: All good candidates for The Worst, and I’ll throw the disembodied voice of Hal Phillip Walker on the list as well, simply for the obnoxiousness factor. But I think I was most put out by Winifred’s (Barbara Harris) naysaying husband Star (Bert Ramsen), whose sole purpose in Nashville seems to be chasing his wife down and stomping on her dreams. Oh, and he gives a lift to Kenny and fails to bat an eyelash at him carrying that violin case, even after Kenny tells him he doesn’t play music. That obliviousness, combined with the resolute desire to corral his wife, makes Star a perfect stand-in for the sort of blinkered traditionalism that provides a lot of Nashville’s dramatic tension. He’s perhaps too minor to be the most hateable of Nashville’s two-dozen players, but his apathy toward apparent evil, combined with his desire to undermine joy in others, makes him a very particular sort of everyday monster.
Then again, Winifred also fails to register the oddness of someone who says he’s not a musician carrying a violin case. (Same with L.A. Joan when Kenny shows up to rent a room from her uncle.) She’s too busy chasing her own dream, one that, as it turns out, she achieves in the wake of the very tragedy she and everyone else fails to foresee. There’s a whole lot of irony surrounding Kenny’s arrival in Nashville, him toting a symbol of the thing everyone around him is obsessed with—musical stardom—that blinds them to his true purpose. Which is… what, exactly? Kenny’s arrival in Nashville seems accidental—his car breaks down—but it does coincide with Barbara Jean’s return to the city, and he’s often seen hovering around her. Then again, he hovers around a lot of people; he’s a shifty-eyed lurker, and while it may be apparent that he’s up to no good to those who know to watch for it, his lack of an obvious purpose in a town filled with people so focused on their own success and happiness is striking, and suspicious. We never really get a clear motive from Kenny, which is frustrating from a narrative standpoint, but in keeping with Nashville’s kaleidoscopic focus.
It speaks to how much is going on in Nashville that we’ve barely touched on what’s ostensibly the convergence point of that multi-focus: the music. The aforementioned “I’m Easy” is the Oscar-winning popular standout from the film’s soundtrack, but I don’t think it’s too controversial for me to claim that “It Don’t Worry Me” is the best song in the film, not to mention the most thematically resonant. What songs—or even just performances—stick out most to you, Keith?
Keith: I love both of those, but it’s Ronee Blakley’s performance as Barbara Jean that get me every time. In some ways, the songs are overshadowed by the breakdowns around them, but the songs themselves, which Blakley wrote, are wonderful. Barbara Jean’s clearly partly based on Loretta Lynn, who peppers her concerts with autobiographical asides and seems incapable of writing a song that’s not straight from the heart. It’s clear that she’s much more talented than her rival Connie White (Karen Black), but their rivalry allows Nashville to make another point about show business, and life itself: Talent only gets you so far. Connie may not be able to reach the artistic heights of Barbara Jean, but she shows up and gets the job done. After a while, even geniuses run out of people who will put up with their bullshit.
All that being said, it’s “Keep A Goin’,” one of the film’s most obnoxious songs—by design—that I find myself humming after watching Nashville. Why? Any theories?
Genevieve: Well, likely because it’s catchy as all get-out, in that way that down-home sing-along country songs of its ilk can be. It’s appropriate that it’s Haven who sings that particular song, a “special old favorite” he claims gave him his start in the biz, and that people have “loved throughout the years.” (Appropriately, “Keep-A-Goin’” began life as a poem that Henry Gibson recited on a 1966 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show; he retrofitted it into a song for Nashville.) Haven is a symbol of the Country Music Establishment, Nudie Suit and all, and he performs the song at the Grand Ole Opry, itself a symbol of the genre’s, and the city’s, traditional roots. But country music is nowhere near as homogenous as performers like Haven would like to believe; outlaw country was already an established subgenre at this point, and the Nashville welcome of folk trio Bill, Mary, And Tom—a group that is country-adjacent, at best—speaks to the blurring of lines that was happening in the genre around this point.
As Charles points out in his essay today, the music of Nashville is reflective of a schism that was going on in the culture at the time, between a disillusioned old guard and a disillusioned new guard. Songs like “Keep A-Goin’” belong to the former camp, who yearn for the good ol’ days when the world was simpler and the music reflected that. It’s a little harder to find such a neat representative of the latter camp on Nashville’s soundtrack, though, probably because the film captures a moment when newer strains of country music were still coming into their own. More than any other genre I can think of—except perhaps hip-hop, which wasn’t a going concern at this point—country music possesses an internal tension between respect for the past and the impetus to move forward. It’s a genre that’s hard-wired for traditionalism, which invites conflict as it evolves with each new generation. In that way, it’s the perfect milieu for Nashville’s strain of satire, where the tension between different generations struggling for primacy and relevance within a perpetually shifting cultural landscape reveals everyone as a fool, and a victim of their own narrow thinking.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Nashville ends here. Don’t miss Charles’ essay on how the film’s music takes the national temperature circa 1975, and Tuesday’s Keynote essay on why the film’s background is as important as its foreground. And come back next week for our Movie Of The Week discussion of Aliens.