Saturday, February 5, 2011

"You May Say That I Ain't Free, But It Don't Worry Me." Robert Altman's "Nashville"

This movie has long been a favorite of mine, and has been on my mind lately.

It was filmed in the summer of 1974 all on location in Nashville and used a lot of the local population as extras. Many of the actors wrote and performed their own music. On the surface, it's another showbiz yarn of the kind Hollywood has produced for decades. There are the brave and plucky strivers on their way up, and the stars always anxious about finding themselves on the way down. Usually those stories are set on Broadway or in Hollywood. This one is set in "the Hillbilly Hollywood," Nashville, center of the Country Western music industry. On a deeper level, the movie tells a story about that combination of talent, celebrity, money, and politics that is American public life, and about its effects on the lives of individuals and on the country as a whole.

Altman used a large ensemble of actors playing a group of characters whose separate lives and ambitions gradually weave together toward the movie's climax. Altman's very novel techniques of fragmentary dialogue and editing make the story a little hard to follow at first, but we quickly find ourselves riveted by what unfolds before us. The story reveals itself through momentary glimpses into the lives of several individual people. Each of those people is a fascinating story in themselves.

The movie opens with Henry Gibson playing a very established Nashville star, Haven Hamilton, who despite his professions of political neutrality, is very transparently politically ambitious. Lady Pearl, played by Barbara Baxley, is the divorced Hamilton's companion. She owns and runs one of the larger and more famous night spots in Nashville, and ruefully obsesses over the late Kennedy brothers.
The songwriter Ronee Blakely plays the physically and emotionally fragile grand diva Barbara Jean, who is very loosely modeled on Loretta Lynn ("fragile" is one word I'd never use to describe Loretta Lynn). Barbara Jean's spectacular entrance in the movie, and her even more spectacular exit, bracket the film's whole narrative.
Allen Garfield plays Barbara Jean's over-protective, controlling, and even bullying husband-manager Barnett.
Karen Black plays Connie White, a star of mediocre talent who is Barbara Jean's bitter rival.
Barbara Jean has two obsessed fans who follow her throughout the movie and come together dramatically at the end. One is a soldier just back from Vietnam named Glenn Kelly played by a very young Scott Glenn. The other is a sad and mysterious loner named Kenny Frazier played by David Hayward.
There is the sad and troubled country-folk trio, Bill, Mary, and Tom. Bill, played by Alan F. Nichols, and Mary, played by Cristina Raines, are having a severe crisis in their marriage. The source of their trouble is the third member of the trio, Tom Frank, played by a scrumptious young Keith Carradine. For all of his political posturing (and ambition), Tom is a cold hearted narcissistic scoundrel, a womanizer and a backstabber. He's carrying on an affair with Mary while bedding down with about 3 other women in the movie. At the same time, he's trying to set himself up independently and at Bill and Mary's expense.
There are the strivers. A young waitress in an airport diner named Sueleen Gay (played by Gwen Welles) aspires to be a big time diva, but has no talent. When Sueleen's big moment of opportunity comes, she ends up painfully humiliated. Robert DuQuoi plays Wade Cooley, the cook at the diner who is Sueleen's close friend and protector. Barbara Harris plays an aspiring young singer-songwriter named Winifred who ditches her brute of a husband. He chases her throughout the movie, and we get little glimpses of her determined struggle for success. It is only at the end of the movie that we finally hear her sing as her big debut opportunity lands so suddenly and unexpectedly in her lap. To her great credit, she is ready for it.
Among the agents of power and money is local businessman Del Reese played by Ned Beatty as an affable good-ol'-boy cynic. Lily Tomlin plays his wife, Linea, a gospel singer who has her fidelity problems despite her devotion to their 2 deaf children. John Triplette (played by Michael Murphy) is a political operative from California for the mysterious presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. He's a cold calculating smooth-talker who feels nothing but contempt for the local people he must recruit into the campaign.
Comic relief comes in the form of a "BBC reporter" (most likely a groupie) named Opal played by Geraldine Chaplin who always interrupts at the most awkward moments inserting herself among the celebrities.

Yes, it's a big cast, and that's not even all of them.

Here's a sample of the movie that begins with Opal having a drink with Lady Pearl who gloomily remembers those Kennedy boys:

We see Bill confessing to his sadly correct suspicions about Mary. Mary and Tom are in bed together while listening to a tape of him singing. Then we see a beautiful and poignant sequence showing Sunday morning in Nashville and many of the characters in church. The scene underscores the role of religion as a sustaining force for people as individuals and communities. Sadly, it also shows religion as a very divisive force. Spouses are shown in separate churches. People are separated by sectarian, racial, and class differences in their respective churches. Then Opal waxes poetic in a junkyard in a hilarious scene that follows. Winifred still grabs that opportunity to sing even though no one can possibly hear her over the Nascar races.

Here is another splendid sequence with a taste of some of the magnificent musical performances in this movie. Ronee Blakely plays Country diva Barbara Jean performing at Opryland.

This movie came out in the immediate wake of Watergate, and was released the year the Vietnam War ended. The movie refers to them obliquely, especially at the end. The violence and assassinations of the 1960s make their appearance at the end of the film. Assassinations perhaps are the ultimate intersection of celebrity, power, obsession, and paranoia, so this movie suggests. This movie is about that tangled mix of yearning, preconception, possibility, and reality that is present in so much American public life. Sometimes, all of those things come together, but more frequently, they collide. The movie very strongly suggests the ability of power and money to manipulate those yearnings to fulfill ambitions for domination. People's hopes and dreams become turned against them in a siren song intended to lead them on. In the last 35 years or so since this movie came out, those basic insights only grew more true. Perhaps that is the source of this movie's continuing power and resonance.

More music from "Nashville:"


June Butler said...

I loved the movie, and I walked away singing the song in the title of your post, feeling a little like Alfred P. Newman. Time to watch it again.

JCF said...

Gwen Welles subsequently (10 years later) appeared in the groundbreaking lesbian movie, Desert Hearts (Yup, I recognized the name from that!)

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