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Robert Altman's film Nashville premiered in New York on June 11, 1975 - exactly halfway between President Nixon's resignation and the start of the United States' Bicentennial year - and its timing could not have been more appropriate.
On the surface, the film is about a country music festival in Nashville that coincides with a presidential campaign and the twenty-four different characters whose lives intermingle during the festival's five days. Interpretations of the film's meaning have been as numerous as the critics themselves, but director Altman has said that while the film is set in Nashville and the country music scene, it's really a film about American politics. Nashville was "a place where people get off the bus, like Hollywood was many years ago. The money is generated and there's a crudeness to the culture. It just seems like the proper place for me to be able to equate the analogy of our elected officials and politicians - which in many ways, I think, is a popularity contest - with the success of country and western music. As I say, eventually it's just a way of melding a whole view, my view, of the political climate in America today". Longtime Altman associate and Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury said, "Part of Nashville was because he hated what Richard Nixon was doing to the country. I'll never forget the image - when we were walking down the street the morning after Nixon had been elected again [in 1972]. There had been a huge windstorm the night before, and all of these umbrellas were turned inside out. And he said, 'The world is mourning. We've lost because Nixon has won.' He was really angry about that." Twenty-five years later, Altman looked back at the making of Nashville "I felt we were doing something that had the potential of being terrific. I had complete artistic freedom in this; I had nobody - nobody - saying you had to do this or do that....We had the framework, which was the city of Nashville, and I had the music as the through line. Then, you've got to understand that at that time everybody was politically charged - one way or another. So when they found out we were free to express these...attitudes, everybody became very creative."
Nashville was originally offered to United Artists but they put off making a financial commitment and it was eventually passed on to Paramount. The starting money was provided by ABC so that their record company could release the soundtrack album. The final budget was a mere $2 million and, incredibly, the film was shot in only 45 days. With such a small budget, the actors were all offered the same salary - somewhere between $750 and $1,000 a week. Most, like Geraldine Chaplin, were happy to take the pay cut. According to Patrick McGilligan in his book Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, "Geraldine Chaplin said she turned down a $130,000 role in London in order to fly to the Altman set for her one-of-the-crowd billing. 'In Europe', she said, 'Altman is number one'. Lily Tomlin told Carol Burnett she would be more fulfilled, as an actress, with a walk-on in any Altman movie than with a lead role in most others...The Altman troupe were iconoclasts or independents, unknown quantities in motion pictures, new names, stand-up improvisers and small theater people, television people imprisoned by a boob-tube image, foreign stars whose casting would never have been cheered by a U.S. film company."
Not everyone was willing to work for less. Robert Duvall had been Altman's first choice for Haven Hamilton, but his salary demands were too high and the part went to Laugh-In star Henry Gibson. The role gave Gibson the chance to show audiences that he was much more than a comedian, and won him a National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor. Likewise, Susan Anspach refused to take a lower salary to play Barbara Jean and was replaced at the last minute. McGilligan wrote, "[Ronee] Blakley knew [musical director Richard] Baskin and Baskin knew she had recorded a promising early album on the Elektra label that includes two of the four songs she eventually was to sing in Nashville. When Anspach dropped out of the running, Altman remembered Blakley, who he had met and whose songs he had heard. He and Baskin went to see her perform in concert in Nashville where she was appearing as a backup singer for country-folk artist Hoyt Axton. More a political rhythm and blues folkie (her first album contains a homage to slain Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton), Blakley threw herself into research for the role - and made a point of meeting Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton as part of her preparation." Her hard work paid off. Blakley ended up with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Ironically the addition of Blakley cost the film a Best Soundtrack nomination because her songs had already appeared in another medium.) Ned Beatty agreed to appear for what he called "one-tenth" of his usual salary, but after the film was complete, said in a magazine interview that he would never work with Altman again because he paid his actors so little. In the main, however, the equality of the salaries helped the actors cooperate with each other and built a sense of camaraderie on the set.
Nashville was a collaborative effort between director and actors with the principals either writing their own songs or in collaboration with Richard Baskin (who plays "Frog" in the film). The soundtrack album would later earn a Grammy nomination. The actors were also encouraged to improve their dialogue if it would enrich the character. Ronee Blakley, in particular, expanded upon her character's fainting scene which gave a whole new dimension to the role. "The sequence of Barbara Jean's mental disintegration was originally intended to be filmed at a shopping mall as a cathartic fainting spell. The night before the filming, Blakley began to think about the scene and decided that it was not enough for Barbara Jean to just faint. That would simply repeat an earlier airport scene where the country-and-western singer collapses in public. Instead, the first-time actress wrote a long, complicated, painful monologue, drawing on the journals she carried with her everywhere pasting 'little bits' of her own childhood together with bits of Barbara Jean's. She hoped the resulting words would be like the country lyrics only without the musical accompaniment, corny but touching. 'I wanted to go deeper down the road into her [Barbara Jean], to reveal both her strengths and her weaknesses. If she collapsed again physically, it wouldn't be taking her character anywhere, or the movie anywhere. Mostly, I just wanted people to see what made her tick.' When Blakley asked to see Altman the next day, the director was already embroiled with the crowds and the logistics. He arrived in her quarters, tense and irritable. 'Ronee Blakley caught me on the worst day, emotionally, of Nashville, he told American Film. 'It was stringing out towards the end of the picture. She was in makeup. We had a motel down there and I was screaming in the telephone at somebody and somebody else came in and said, 'Ronee wants to see you'. I thought 'Jesus Christ, now I have to have Ronee.' So I walked over to her and I said, 'Do you want to see me?' Kind of gruffly, which would scare her. She said, 'Could I have a moment?' I said, 'I suppose you want to see me alone.' She said, 'Well, yes.' I said, "You've got ideas for the scene, huh?' She said, 'Do you want to hear it?' and I said, "Yeah'. So we walked outside and she took out this notebook. She said, 'Here's what I thought' and she started reading from this thing. I said, 'I don't know, Ronee, I've got too much. Let's just do what we're supposed to do.' She said, 'Okay, whatever you say'. We went and we got in our little camper to go out to the location and I got to feeling bad about it and finally I said, 'Go ahead. Do what you were going to do '. Well, it's just dynamite material. It's just terrific. And I sat there and I thought 'I damn near blew this...'" Patrick McGilligan believes that it was this scene (which took all of twenty minutes to shoot) that earned Blakley her Academy Award nomination.
Geraldine Chaplin's character, Opal, was a BBC reporter who went everywhere with a tape recorder, commenting inanely on everything around her. Altman told Chaplin the character was his alter-ego. Joan Tewkesbury based the character's tape recorder obsession on what she had experienced first-hand, "I was in Cannes with Geraldine in 1974, and every time she would walk down the street there'd be ten or fifteen Opals chasing her with tape recorders. Her whole life she'd been pursued by people following a famous man's [Charlie Chaplin] daughter, trying to take her picture or ask her a question. So what she did really was show what she's been plagued with all her life. I feel it was a pretty honest interpretation."
The climactic scene of the film, in which Barbara Jean is assassinated at the concert, could only be shot in one day, due to budget restrictions. When it came time to shoot, it was pouring rain. According to those on the set, Altman, growing more and more frustrated, actually walked out into the rain, looked up at the sky, and shouted "Stop!" Within a few minutes the rain ceased. This scene caused more trouble for Altman than just the weather. He had used murders in several other films as, what Tewkesbury called, "an exorcism, a way of terminating that film's lifetime". It was a decision that was not popular. Altman claimed it was the reason behind art director Polly Platt's quitting the film. Tewkesbury later said "It wasn't in my first draft but Altman felt very strongly about it, since we had just lived through those times [the murders of the Kennedy Brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]. Bob felt that people never assassinate movie stars. They never assassinate anybody but politicians or heads of government, and the lowest thing you could do would be to assassinate this mother figure, this lady. So I redrafted the script with the assassination in mind, which gave it a harder edge and added a lot of other characters. ...I don't like it a lot, I think it's a very negative statement, but one can't deny the impact of it, the truth of it. But I love the film, and I wanted to see that film through, so you bet I wrote the assassination. I wrote it the best way I could, and the best way was to forget the judgment of 'assassinations' and trace why someone would do that..."
A short time before the scene was shot, South Korean President Chung Hee Park and his wife were assassinated and Altman was directly influenced by the subsequent news coverage. He told a reporter on the set, "I know just how I'm going to shoot that final scene now. I know just how to do it. Park was speaking at a podium when the shots went off. He ducked, and she got hit. Yeah, oh, they carried her out with her feet up, the whole thing. But the guys filming it, they zoomed in...and then back, and pointed here and there and all over 'There's a shooting!' 'Where?' The whole place was in absolute pandemonium. That's just how to shoot a scene".
Robert Altman's films have always been controversial and have left audiences and critics divided. When Paramount previewed the film in Boston the audience stood for several minutes both booing and cheering. Roger Ebert wrote in his review for The Chicago Sun-Times "After November 22, 1963 [the date of President Kennedy's assassination] and all the other days of infamy, I wouldn't have thought it possible that a film could have anything new or very interesting to say on assassination, but Nashville does, and the film's closing minutes with Barbara Harris finding herself, to her astonishment, onstage and singing, It Don't Worry Me are unforgettable and heartbreaking. Nashville, which seems so unstructured as it begins, reveals itself in this final sequence to have had a deep and very profound structure - but one of emotions, not ideas. This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn't flatter us but it does love us."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have liked Nashville but it didn't "love" it quite enough, to Altman's severe disappointment. The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin), and Best Music, Original Song (Keith Carradine's I'm Easy). Carradine would win the film's only Oscar. That year, Nashville was up against One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and in a twist of fate, Louise Fletcher, for whom Lily Tomlin's role of a singer with two deaf children was originally written (Fletcher was the child of deaf parents), took home the Oscar for Best Actress.
Producer: Robert Altman, Martin Starger, Jerry Weintraub
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Joan Tewkesbury
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Film Editing: Dennis M. Hill, Sidney Levin
Art Direction: Robert M. Anderson
Music: Arlene Barnett, Jonnie Barnett, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Gary Busey, Keith Carradine, Juan Grizzle, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Joe Raposo
Cast: David Arkin (Norman), Barbara Baxley (Lady Pearl), Ned Beatty (Delbert Reese), Karen Black (Connie White), Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean), Timothy Brown (Tommy Brown).
by Lorraine Lobianco
Andrew Urban "Altman, Robert: Nashville's 25th", Urbancinefile.com, 2000
Roger Ebert review of Nashville, Chicago Sun Times, 1975
Patrick McGilligan, "Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff"