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NASHVILLE the Beautiful: How Robert Altman Dissected a Divided America in the Country Music Capital

In 1975, Robert Altman debuted the crown jewel of his career: a gutsy, broad-scale cinematic portrait of a divided America set within the Country Music Capital of the World. Today, it might just be the greatest American film of all time.

"No, no strangers at all..."

So are the plain yet pointed words of Barbara Baxley’s territorial Lady Pearl, spoken with a wry and wary sense of warning early on in Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville. In the decades since its debut, Altman's magnum opus has maintained an acclaimed reputation as a loose, freewheeling document of seventies-era country music culture and the cornucopia of characters who comprise this panoramic time capsule.

Set in Tennessee's titular "Country Music Capital of the World," Altman's seminal film is a slyly penetrating study of American disillusion that takes the sprawling shape of a rapturous cinematic revue, crowded with human beings of various backgrounds, beliefs, and eccentricities. Altman utilized his prize 24-member ensemble, filled with lots of familiar and unconventional faces but no spotlight-stealing stars, to sketch a mesmerizing human canvas of real, erratic life among Nashville’s insiders and interlopers, capturing the personal and professional crises and everyday mundanities that such lives often entail. Nashville thrives on its scattered characters, many of whom appear unwittingly absurd on the surface when introduced to us, like the butt of a joke they are unaware is being played on them — that is until the moment when Altman allows them to become suddenly and remarkably flesh-and-blood in our eyes, privileging us a condensed glimpse at their anguish, vulnerability, and mettle. By concentrating on the unsystematic comings and goings of these people and stoking the improvisational instincts of his actors to construct moments of true, character-shaping spontaneity, Altman rejected any semblance of a tight and traditional narrative and shaped a genuine cinematic rarity in the process: a film that is truly a living, breathing entity. Altman's masterpiece has spawned countless imitations from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson (in Boogie Nights and Magnolia), John Sayles (in Sunshine State), and even Altman himself (in Short Cuts, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion), who all sought to conjure even an ounce of the vitality that Nashville and its many inhabitants seem to so effortlessly radiate.

There has always been something far more substantial at work within Nashville, an acerbity to its chaotic proceedings that firmly aligns it with Altman’s other famously trenchant, hyperaware exercises in multi-character portraiture, but also a sobering tough-mindedness that manages not only to differentiate it from some of Altman’s more frivolous entries in the same genre but put it in timely dialogue with the era that spawned it. "When one considers the films that could be said to speak to the zeitgeist of the seventies, Nashville holds an unassailable spot at the top of the list," writes Jan Stuart in her extensive, behind-the-scenes book The Nashville Chronicles. An electric current of highly-charged sociopolitical tension pulses through Nashville, a byproduct of the mounting cynicism and high-level bureaucratic con artistry of a shattered, seventies-era America still mourning and recovering from the savage, strong-armed political turmoil of the sixties, which saw the escalation of a needless war that ended less than two months before Altman’s film was unveiled. It is this same deep-rooted, far-reaching national strain, this joint desolation, that pushes Nashville's characters together and then just as quickly tears them apart, only making Altman's film more multidimensional, insightful, and stunningly prophetic than initially believed.

The tension is right there in the subliminal words of Lady Pearl, a hostess figure within the tight-knit country music circle and the closest confidante to Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), the self-styled "Mr. Nashville." Haven is a superstar of the Grand Ole Opry, a man small in size but large in stature. When Pearl remarks, "No, no strangers at all," she is in the process of shooing away a meddling BBC reporter named Opal, played with delirious daffiness by Geraldine Chaplin. Opal has just wandered into a recording studio, without any clearance, to request an interview with Haven, who is in the process of recording a cornball number entitled "200 Years," in commemoration of the upcoming Bicentennial. Even in this seemingly slight interaction, there is a glancing but increasingly undeniable ugliness gnawing away at Nashville, a hardened arrogance that is vaguely hinted at in Pearl’s swift dismissal, but is clarified with greater hubris shortly after when Haven curtly upbraids a long-haired, slippery-fingered piano player named "Frog" (Richard Baskin, the film's musical supervisor) with the following renunciation: "You get your hair cut. You don’t belong in Nashville."

Who does belong in Nashville?

This is the becomes the lingering, ever-present question of Altman's film, one made all the more unanswerable by the diversity of types that have accumulated within, and thus come to represent, this community. Maybe Nashville once belonged to old-timers like Haven and Pearl, still clinging to the time-honored traditions handed down to them by the pioneering mothers and fathers who built this city, but how then to explain or categorize the range of people who arrive from near and far to become a part of this scene, those individuals who come to Nashville on a mission and are either greeted with open arms or turned away at the gates of the Opry? It is this imbalance that allows Nashville to function as a critique of a thriving yet troubled community whose supposed efforts at inclusiveness disguise a basic exclusivity from which it has been predicated on, an industry that projects a polished and all-too familiar image of a free and welcoming society while at the same time turning a blind or disdainful eye to the broadening of its own swelling populace. Altman presents the Opry-attending, Bicentennial-celebrating Nashville community as a clear-cut microcosm of larger American life, a USA-in-miniature that is just one of the many communities in a compartmentalized country being rapidly disrupted and divided, a cultural bubble being burst against its will.

Everything about Nashville, from its liberally open-ended scenes to Altman’s indulgently soft-focused camera, seems intent on immersing us as fully as possible among the myriad inhabitants of this insulated world. Although invaluably scripted by Joan Tewkesbury and heavily based upon her experiences journeying through the city as a solo, eagle-eyed wanderer, Nashville’s script functions as more of a reference guide from which Altman frequently deviates, only relying on it as an outline for the key events that comprise the five days over which the film takes place, all leading up to a culminating sequence at the Nashville Parthenon during a political rally for an invisible, third-party presidential candidate. (Altman never placed much value in conventional storytelling methods; this is the man, after all, who in MASH made a satire of war in which only a single shot is fired, during a recreational football game, and in Thieves Like Us crafted a drama about Depression-era bank robbers in which we enter a bank just once, well into the film's third act.) It is Nashville's gloriously, self-consciously untraditional narrative, comprised more of scenarios (such as the highway pileup that draws together and further delineates all of the film’s major characters early on) rather than a fixed and firm plot, that allows Altman to take such inventive and unprecedented liberties with his own relaxed and organic filmmaking approach, especially when it comes to his sui generis conveyance of character.

Altman and cinematographer Paul Lohmann, whose work on Nashville would mark the second of only three collaborations with the director, are sparse with their close-ups, preferring instead to keep the actors at bay by cutting off their dialogue and panning the camera away from them during some of their “biggest” and most revealing moments; their characters, in turn, experience events, discover new feelings, and undergo sea-changes that we can clearly intuit in one scene and yet only imagine in the next. These choices, furthered shaped by Dennis M. Hill and Sidney Levin’s leisurely and astutely-timed editing, should have, by all means, seriously impaired the film. Instead, they actually suggest a rich and interesting life for all of these characters that exists just beyond the edges of the frame. Altman managed to meet the intimidatingly tall order of keeping nearly all of his major players in rotation by allowing each to have his or her momentary spotlight while also keeping these actors present throughout the entire film. The director allows certain actors who are not the focus of a given scene to dwell on the periphery of a shot, at times capturing them in briefly overheard conversation with one another while dawdling in the background or simply passing through. Despite this constant and impartial deployment of his ensemble members, Altman quickly establishes one character as the closest thing to a centralized figure within Nashville, a sort of prismatic human centerpiece whom Altman’s camera fixates on and whom the film’s other inhabitants project their dreams and desires upon, a sanctified woman who carries the weight of Nashville’s ideologies and aspirations upon a pair of fragile shoulders shrouded in white lace.

Barbara Jean (played with shimmering and elegant unknowability by singer-actress Ronee Blakley) is the reigning Queen of Country Music and the deteriorating deity at the center of Altman’s colorful tapestry, drifting in and out of the film with a haunting, hypnotic ethereality. With her beaming, oval-like face, tasteful white gowns, perfectly-coiffed brown bouffant, and husky, mountain-bred voice, Barbara Jean bears an uncanny likeness to the real-life country music superstar Loretta Lynn. Like Lynn, Barbara Jean is the beloved and unequaled songbird of Nashville, one who is also, like Lynn, prone to debilitating mental and physical health setbacks. Lynn’s turbulent marital history is even vaguely paralleled in the form of Barnett (Allen Garfield), Barbara Jean’s oafish husband and manager who okays every personal and professional decision in his wife’s life and controls her with a Svengali-like grip that has rendered her all but helpless.

When Nashville opens, Barbara Jean is returning home to an elaborate pageant after recovering from a mysterious burn accident; the winsome, open-hearted sincerity of her speech immediately contrasts the pomp and circumstance of her welcome-home ceremony. But before Barbara Jean can even make it off the airport tarmac, she faints in the summer heat in front of the prying eyes of her fans and well-wishers. Later on, over the course of an extraordinary and exhausting concert scene set in Nashville’s outdoor Opryland venue, the character is unable to continue her packed performance without breaking into hazy and disquieting ramblings about distant childhood memories, an incident recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with Lynn’s own well-documented history of public breakdowns. Indeed, the Lynn comparison is by now notorious, having drawn the long-lasting ire of both the country music community, who deemed the character a gross and offensive caricature and subsequently denounced Altman’s movie and its music, and Lynn herself, who once replied to a reporter's inquiry about whether she would see Nashville with the remark, "I’d rather see Bambi."

However, Lynn is only the bare bones of Altman and Tewkesbury’s eloquently symbolic conception of Barbara Jean, whose tragic dissolution contributes a great deal to Altman’s larger, anarchic designs, as well as the regionally-specific atmosphere which he sought to recreate. There is no name or diagnosis given to whatever is afflicting Barbara Jean, only the spooky coincidence that being in Nashville seems to be ailing her, with little alleviation from her round-the-clock care. In this light, Barbara Jean is ultimately less a reflection or scathing imitation of Lynn than a sad reflection of the wider Nashville industry and its soul-sapping star-making system. What could be more indicative of America’s dark and debilitating views on female celebrity than a talented and beautiful woman whose inability to please her husband, her fans, and her community is literally ailing her and hindering her ability to uphold the standards of resilient, All-American virtuousness that she has been entrusted to personify? Barbara Jean is the promise and foundering of Nashville incarnate, an angelic emblem—or effigy—of the instability of tradition amid the clashes and upheavals of wildly uncertain times.

Altman depicts the other people of Nashville as living amidst a constant discord that separates native and newcomer, townsman and traveler, diehard and dissenter, celebrity and sycophant, those content within their social station and those only seeking ascension, the ones dying to get into this world and the ones dying to get out. In his original review of the film, “The Homecoming of Barbara Jean,” the critic Hollis Alpert described the “the general scheme” of Nashville as “Nothing less nor more than a portrait of America, at a particular moment, in a certain place." What Alpert’s brief but illuminating statement only begins to suggest is that Nashville is far more than a mere backdrop for the zany comings and goings of Altman’s characteristically vivid motley crew. Altman’s Nashville, like the infernal New York of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the arid, sun-baked Los Angeles valleys of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, or even the offices and backlots of Altman’s Hollywood in The Player, is a full-fledged force, the atmospheric context that propels the action of the film, driving and controlling the lives of these individuals, enabling their decisions, hindering their growth, and shaping their identities. It is a lifestyle, one that many characters take great pains to adopt and embody throughout the course of the film. As Bert Cardullo writes in his book Indelible Images: New Perspectives on Classic Films, “Altman does not transform the characters of Nashville… [but] exposes them: what people are in close relation to their space, how they are its empty reflections—at once its products and producers, its pawns and manipulators." Whatever their particular shades and idiosyncrasies, Altman’s characters are all united under the large, all-encompassing umbrella of Nashville, which begs the chicken-or-egg question of whether a city, a state, or even a country is the reflection of its inhabitants or vice versa?

Altman suggests talent and its more superficial sibling fame as the ultimate measures of one’s status in Nashville. The Nashville elite is comprised of the talent themselves (i.e. Barbara Jean; Haven; Karen Black’s Connie White, Barbara Jean’s chief rival for the throne; and Timothy Brown’s suave crooner Tommy Brown, the Opry’s lone black singer) and those in close relation to them (i.e. Lady Pearl, Ned Beatty’s music lawyer Delbert Reese, and Barbara Jean’s consort-cum-keeper Barnett). On the other end of the spectrum, the bottom-dwellers of Nashville are generally talentless access-seekers, including Chaplin’s sycophantic Opal, as well as David Arkin’s obsequious celebrity chauffeur Norman, Gwen Welles’ tone-deaf and pitifully dimwitted waitress Sueleen, and Barbara Harris’ runaway wife Albuquerque, née Winifred, an aspiring singer whose first chance at the mic at a raceway concert is drowned out by the blare of the vehicles.

“These characters,” Alpert writes, “impinge on each other like atoms in collision,” careening into and encroaching on one another, challenging their positions, shifting their dynamics, and affecting one another’s fates. It is to Altman’s credit that the fine distinctions of each character similarly work to complicate our initial conceptions of them as individuals, with a specific emphasis on the roles and rungs of the ladder they occupy. A scene at Lady Pearl’s club, in which Tommy Brown is drunkenly lambasted by Robert DoQui’s Wade, Sueleen’s protective black co-worker, as “the whitest n****r in town,” is not just telling of the racial dynamics of Nashville but further indicative of the tension between Tommy’s clashing and potentially limiting identity as a black man singing a genre of music most commonly associated with white men. Tommy, modeled after the trailblazing singer Charley Pride, may be a well-liked and well-respected member of the country-western upper crust, but, as Altman suggests, he can only rise so far in Nashville without being accused of “passing” by his critics or kept in his place by the industry’s gate-keepers; in one shot, as Tommy exits the stage of the Grand Ole Opry following a lukewarm performance, he jokes to Haven about how dead the audience is, to which Haven cracks, “He’s lucky to be alive." Later, while taking in the competition at the raceway with Tommy, Haven hands him a hunk of watermelon from his cooler, a “racist statement” improvised by Gibson, who owned and packed the cooler himself, for maximum discomfort. On the other end of the spectrum is L.A. Joan, née Martha, a bewigged and often scantily-clad groupie, played by Altman regular Shelley Duvall, who uses her visit to an ailing aunt as a means of ingratiating herself amongst the Nashville nobility, continually wandering away from her doleful, elderly uncle (Keenan Wynn) during their visits to the hospital in order to trail Barbara Jean, who is recuperating nearby. Like Barbara Harris’ Albuquerque, another self-seeking dropout, “L.A. Joan” serves as an alternate identity to whoever Martha was before she entered Altman’s picture; their changes in name cast each of them as something like cultural émigrés, allowing them both to gain deeper access into this insular community.

Nashville presents a world unto itself and a community that might as well exist underneath a dome for all of its casually sheltered obliviousness. Altman, who used the onslaught of celebrity cameos in The Player to evoke a sense of star-sighting familiarity, employs the same device here to instead evoke an unfamiliarity within Nashville, whose luminaries remain ignorantly detached from communities other than their own. The weird but cleverly realized walk-ons from Altman alumni Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, the former making a pit stop at one of Haven’s domestic get-togethers and the latter passing through a club for a quick and courteous greeting, operate as fourth wall-breaking reminders to the audience of the world that exists outside of the one depicted in the film, a world where Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton are likely mere curios. Altman best exemplifies just how cut off Nashville is from the mainstream in Christie’s cameo, in which Connie White (played with graceful bitchiness by Black) expresses complete and comical incomprehension of Christie, international celebrity and fashion icon. “She can’t even comb her hair!” cackles the lusciously-locked Connie in response to Haven’s assertions that Christie, with her disheveled ringlets, is in fact a movie star who won an Oscar for, as Haven puts it, “one of those pictures, I don’t know which one.”

Never is the cultural disconnect felt more crucially than in the campaign of the Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker, a subplot of the film that embeds it within the realm of satire. It is Walker’s campaign that opens the film itself, as a van glides down avenue after avenue in the gloomy Nashville morning, blaring Walker’s plainspoken political professions, e.g. “When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that’s politics.” Although the campaign is constantly referenced within the film, its machinery made manifest in the urbane form of Michael Murphy’s glib, double-dealing consultant John Triplette, Walker himself is never seen, just heard. Walker registers as nothing more than the disembodied voice of a likely political puppet that many in Nashville are campaigning for but, in a supreme Altman irony, seldom listening to. In this cacophonous Nashville, noise, caterwauling, and overlapping chatter run rampant from the mouths of all of Altman’s characters, who are amplified here by a multitrack stereo system that Altman specially developed for the film in order to arrange the multitude of voices. Rarely do any of these people halt their own self-absorbed prattling in order to consider the person on the other end of a conversation, much less mull over a subject as substantial as politics. When characters make mention of Walker, it is never in relation to his actual beliefs, even though it is the candidate's rally that Haven and Barbara Jean, among others, have been recruited to perform at, lured in by Triplette’s sycophantic sweet talk and canny bargaining. During the same home gathering that Elliott Gould drops in on, Triplette tells Haven, a man of no evident political qualifications, “Walker thinks that you’d make a fine governor in this state… And he wants you to know that, should the time come you want to run, he’ll be there with his organization to back you all the way,” diabolically stoking the ambitions of Nashville’s very own apolitical Napoleon, aware that flattery is the only way to bring him over to his candidate’s side.

The absence of any direct, party-siding addresses or coherent analyses, at least from the mouths of the film’s visible characters, is a statement in and of itself, and not an indifferent gliding over of deeper complexities, as Steven Abrahams claims in “Buying Nashville.” In his pan of the film, Abrahams writes, “Altman situates the viewer in a complex world, seemingly without a coherent political perspective. We must locate the film’s politics… in this absence of a broad political analysis." This lack of a single “coherent political perspective” is the very point of Altman's piece, which seeks to highlight the utterly deficient interest in government that came to characterize the decade, a dearth of concern that, as David A. Cook writes in Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, is “redolent of the preceding decade’s traumatic politics." Abrahams' critique that “there is no consistent attempt at [political] parody or analysis” fundamentally misunderstands Altman’s artistic intentions while unwittingly cutting to the essence of Nashville’s political stance, or rather lack thereof. Altman rejected parody or overt analysis to instead evoke a cinematic state of the union through mood and milieu, showing us a glum and gluttonous America whose connection to politics has been depleted of soul.

Nashville signifies a nation still reeling from the melees and massacres that pervaded the latter end of the sixties, numbing any and all political involvement and leaving the survivors with the sorrowful remembrances of the hope and promise that once seemed so attainable not too long ago. The film not only reflects the careless, corrupted politicking of the present, but also occasionally eulogizes the past, as evidenced in the liquor-lubricated ramblings of Lady Pearl, who repeatedly voices her eternal, soggy-eyed devotion to John F. Kennedy, an allusion that will eventually connect him to another outwardly immaculate figure of hope and promise in Nashville who also meets a bleak and violent end.

But, because this is Altman, the repercussions of the sixties are not as entirely funereal or somber as a different film or director might portray them. Instead, Nashville suggests a dramatic shifting in the ways in which Americans lived, particularly within a community as fiercely protective of its long-standing traditions as Nashville. There is a transparent disparity between a character like Haven, sporting his rhinestone-covered suits and a coiffure as perfectly-shaped as Barbara Jean’s, and Keith Carradine’s shaggy, sexy, heavy-lidded folk singer Tom, with his long locks and full beard. Haven warbles "For the Sake of the Children," a boilerplate breakup ditty about ending an extramarital affair to keep the family together, to a passively appreciate Opry audience. Tom, meanwhile, croons “Take my hand and pull me down / I won’t put up any fight / Because I’m easy" as a poignantly carnal plea across a crowded club, past a gaggle of aroused onlookers, and straight to Lily Tomlin’s longing housewife Linnea in Nashville's best scene.

Haven maintains an exceedingly private relationship with Pearl, a partner whom we never see him engage with romantically, while Tom beds nearly every woman he comes across, including Mary, the intensely enigmatic wife of the married duo that comprises his musical trio. Although they never come into direct contact with one another, it is clear that Haven and Tom — the former clinging to conventional, Old South values that the other barely realizes still exist — are emblematic of, respectively, a culture with an impending expiration date and a countering one all but ready to take its place.

In Altman's eyes, American traditions, industries, communities, and individuals all fade away at one point or another, an idea he contended with throughout his career, right down to his swan song, 2006's A Prairie Home Companion. In many ways, it's like a muted, melancholic, and belated follow-up to Nashville, in which the performers and personnel of the real-life Midwestern radio institution of the title jovially mourn its final broadcast. In Companion, Meryl Streep’s wistful songstress and her spry sister (played by Tomlin, returning for one last go-round on Altman's colorful carousel) sing a warm duet called "My Minnesota Home," an ode of fond, homesick remembrance and a touching callback to Nashville’s "My Idaho Home," the gorgeously homegrown ballad performed with robust soulfulness by Blakley's Barbara Jean during the film's conclusion. The two mirroring songs, both sentimental recalls of a time predating their performances and a history largely disconnected from current circumstances, seek to illuminate a past no longer present, and thus cast a foreboding shadow over the state of their communities, each already in flux.

(Spoilers follow from here on out.) The harrowing assassination of Barbara Jean that occurs in the film’s final moments feels at once like a random act of savagery, a ritualistic slaughter, and a dreadful inevitability that simply comes with the country, another instance of history repeating itself: same weapon, different victim. "This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us in Nashville!" a wounded Haven tries to reassure his audience, making explicit reference to the city in which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy in broad daylight and chillingly turned the tide of American political life for good. Even as blood quite visibly oozes from Haven's arm, he refuses to believe that such a violation could occur so close to his home, that such a treasured member of his community could be so suddenly and mercilessly eliminated. The murder of Barbara Jean—Nashville's lifeblood, its beacon of barely-realized hope—casts her less as a victim of circumstance than as a victim of her own community's failure to protect her and her own country's casual corruption and oblivious enabling. A group of men carry Barbara Jean off-stage, her white dress turned crimson. The horror of the sequence is only exacerbated by the panicked, chilling interjections of a carrier, possibly Barnett, who cries, “I can’t stop that blood, man!" For a moment, it seems as if Nashville, and Nashville, could not possibly go on.

But then Barbara Harris starts to sing. In what is probably one of the most breathtakingly unexpected moments in American cinema, a disturbed Haven hands the mic over to Barbara Harris' Albuquerque, imploring her to sing to this soured and frightened audience. With shaky indecision, Albuquerque begins a stilted rendition of Bill, Mary, and Tom’s anthemic "It Don’t Worry Me" without any accompaniment. The crowd, both onstage and off, transitions from distracted unawareness and staggering mystification into rapt and rousing submission as a gospel choir joins in, followed by a band and then the spectators themselves. "You may say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me," they chant along with Albuquerque, her voice quickly gaining confidence, imperfect but urgent, unsteady but soaring.

The same undulating American flag that hung behind Barbara Jean only moments ago ripples in the wind, as we cut to the scattered, singing faces of the children in the bandstand before focusing back on the Parthenon, where Altman’s wild troupe is strewn about the stage. The camera pans out and tilt up, lifting higher and higher, over the temple and into a spacious, cloud-covered sky. It's the most electrifying sequence in a film of rare cumulative power, from one of this country's most successfully risk-tasking visionaries.

Altman really could see everything and everyone, and never more so than in Nashville, in which he boldly marched across unproven, grand-scale cinematic terrain, where, to borrow a phrase from two of his most illustrious collaborators, "life," and those who live it, "are many things, at once." Albuquerque's impromptu performance is both a self-serving retrieval of a tragically open spotlight, as well as, and perhaps more pivotally, a heroically unifying act that, in the truest "American" sense of the phrase, goes on with the show. Altman allows Nashville—as an industry, an institution, a community, and an ideal—to live on, perhaps only stalling the inevitable, if only for a song.



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