Nashville (1975) details lives of various people a few days prior to a major political convention.
Nashville is often regarded as Robert Altman’s greatest film. To be honest, I’m not really as enthusiastic as I prefer MASH and Gosford Park. I’ll touch more on that later but there’s no denying that Nashville has succeeded at being what it wants to be; a powerful human drama about people and their sentiments. If you thought you have seen a lot of human dramas and character study films, Nashville makes all those movies seem like soap operas. It’s DEFINITELY not for everyone, especially regular movie goers who demand plot and action. However, if you are a newbie movie fanatic like me who wants to learn more about the various forms of cinemas, then Nashville is definitely a must-watch. Even as an Altman fan, I had to adjust my expectations while watching the film. On a basic level, it seems similar to his other films; a particular event taking place with various kinds of characters thrown into the picture. However, Nashville is a lot more ambitious in scale, making MASH and Gosford Park look like “smaller” films despite the fact that they also have numerous characters. While the other two films seem to have more focused themes and ideas that they want to express, Nashville covers A LOT of broad ideas, so much so that it can become overwhelming. The ideas can range from the pursuit of dreams and inner desires, the cruelty of life and reality, the hypocrisy of people, the transient nature of fame and influence and the way politics insidiously encroaches into everybody’s lives. In fact, there are a lot more ideas in this film, and these are only the few that I’ve managed to take away. I guess that’s why reviewers often say that it’s a movie you can watch over and over again, because there is bound to be something new that you take away from it each time.
What makes Nashville stand out even more is how all these broad ideas are blended together seamlessly, especially at the end where all the characters are brought together at the political convention. I feel that Altman took huge risks with this film as the numerous characters and stories can make it very disjointed, especially with the way the conversations and lives of the various characters are often overlapping. However, he miraculously tied everything together, be it through the pathetically nosy reporter who is present in almost every scene (played excellent by Geraldine Chaplin – Charlie Chaplin’s daughter!), or the always present truck promoting the mysterious and faceless presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. You never see the face of this candidate, only hearing his voice and his (rather extreme) speeches being played through the truck’s loudspeaker. It really highlights how politics will one way or another make its entry into the lives of people, whether we are aware of it or not.
Like I said, there are just so many memorable aspects of the film that it would be impossible for me to list them all out. For me, the most haunting character would be Sueleen Gay (played by Gwen Welles whom I personally would have nominated for her performance here) , an aspiring country singer who just can’t sing a note. It’s just almost devastating to watch how her self-confidence and optimism gets exploited when she was forced to perform a striptease in order to have a chance to perform. Her ending expression at the stage is very haunting and says everything about the character, making you wonder what is going to happen to her afterwards.
The other story is Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean, a frail country singer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Barbara Jean is a simple character, but she is like a symbol for many different things for the characters in the film. For instance, to the soldier she is a symbol of love, while for her fans she is a combination of a star, an angelic presence and a symbol of hope of the people. I guess that’s why her tragic demise resulted in such a great deal of chaos and breakdown in the crowd. Blakley was nominated for her performance here, and I think she really deserved it. Just the scene in the church alone, where she is singing in her wheelchair, would have warranted the win over Lee Grant in Shampoo.
The other nominated performance is
Ernestine Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese, a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children. To some, it might seem strange for Tomlin, a very famous comedienne, to play such a toned-down role and still get nominated over some of the flashier performances of the film. If you are expecting a flashy “Oscar” role with dramatic monologues and tears, look away. However if you are looking for a very human performance that addresses the feeling of longing for something else in life, then Tomlin’s performance is bound to blow you away. Well, you all know how much I love subtle and “ordinary” performances, and despite her very limited screentime, Tomlin managed to bring out the layers of the character very well. She starts off as a loving mother to her two deaf children, evidently showing more tenderness and warmth to them than their father (Ned Beatty). However, things start to change when Linnea gets pursued by Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), whom she initially resisted. Tomlin clearly shows how Linnea wanted to resist the affair at first, but was eventually won over in her most famous scene, which would be when Tom sings “I’m Easy” to her. The tension, the emotions, and the beauty of the scene alone is almost indescribable. Tomlin doesn’t say a single word but lets her face and eyes tell the story, showing how she was aware that Tom was singing the song to her. You really have to see it for yourself:
Like I’ve said previously, I’m not as enthusiastic about Nashville as most people, but a bit lame reason: it’s a bit boring sometimes. There are some characters I don’t really care about. However, I wouldn’t really say it’s a flaw, in fact I feel that this is a conscious choice made by Altman. He doesn’t want to win over your love for his film, he just wants to reflect the overlapping lives of different people and the sentiments from that era, and leave it to you to decide which character you want to care about or can relate to. I guess that’s why different people have different takeaways from the movie, and why they discover “something new” when they re-watch the film, like a character they didn’t care about previously. I can only imagine how strongly people in the 70s resonated with the film.
All in all, Nashville is another respectable effort from 1975 that I really admire for its enormous scope, ambition and power. 4.5/5.
P.S. I’m going very fast nowadays because I was really looking forward to all these films. I’ll probably slow down a bit and take my time with Barry Lyndon.
Update: I just found the clip of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin presenting Robert Altman his honorary Oscar. Strangely enough, they really nailed the description of his films.