The quintessential Robert Altman film featured a cast of hundreds and about an equal number of subplots, but who’s complaining?
It is a temptation, with Robert Altman’s Nashville, to run out the bunting, summon the trumpets and let the adjectives rip. For, above all, the film is a stupendous (there I go) entertainment. Don’t suppose that you can sit there and sneer at those country-and-Western performers belting out, or whimpering, their songs. They are pros, and they understand how the blood pumps. Nashville is boisterous, good-natured, funny, exciting and brutal; it will exhaust you and you will feel rewarded.
All this, need I say, did not happen by accident. Nashville is the canniest product yet of a very canny director. In the first place, it was a brilliant notion to use Nashville, the capital of Middle America’s music, as the scene for a melodramatic operetta on the theme of the country’s disarray. “Nashville is a city of instant success,” Altman said in a recent interview with Paul Gardner of The New York Times. “It’s the Hollywood of forty years ago.” And like that Hollywood, it both caters to the widest possible audience and shapes that audience to the visions and, aspirations expressed in its product. The tone of Nashville is nostalgia, bully patriotism, “come to Jesus” religion, callow love and vicious sentimentality.
Altman has built his film on the most hazardous of frameworks, the sustained mass extravaganza, and he succeeds by weaving his dozen or more principal characters through the rushing crowd in a perfectly timed counterpoint of overlapping narratives. (The screenplay, by Joan Tewksbury, is perfectly disciplined chaos.) No one gets lost in the melée and Altman makes his points by tapping you once and then coming back with a crusher. That raddled former beauty, sobbing her love for the dead Kennedys, establishes her own form of defeat, but her monologue is there for another reason as well. And if you think that only a yahoo audience in funny hats would jeer a sick star off the stage, wait and see what Nashville’s business elite can do to a girl of no talent at all.
To use crude labels, country-and-Western is right-wing music, as folk music is left wing, and through the scenes of the picture there moves a sound truck, blatting the cheery totalitarian gospel of a would-be Presidential candidate. Also moving quietly through situation after situation is his advance man, setting up the talent of Nashville for a monster songfest and rally at which his man is to reveal himself to the voters of Tennessee. Michael Murphy plays this cool joker, handsome, relaxed, plausible and turning the surprising trick of corrupting people whom you would have thought beyond further corruption. It is fine acting.
Indeed, all the actors are so fine that it makes your eyes pop. As for example: Henry Gibson plays Haven Hamilton, the reigning star of Grand Ole Opry, a masterful entertainer, an incomparable dispenser of potted charm, vainglorious as only very short men can be and with the confiding eyes of an adder.
Ronee Blakley, who is indeed a singer and songwriter in the Nashville style, plays the sweetheart of saccharine sound, now fighting off a nervous collapse to keep her claws on the summit. Allen Garfield, her husband/manager, is a combination of decency (a spectacular attribute in the context) and tough business in a tough game.
Keith Carradine (who wrote the songs he sings) is a self-intoxicated seducer, but I was interested that in Nashville sex is such common coin that none of his women seems particularly upset at finding herself the object of cold and efficient lechery.
I’m omitting many more than I mention, but it doesn’t tell much to run a list of names, with an E for excellence after each. They make up an extraordinary company. Several of them have worked with Altman before, but here, I would guess, they are performing beyond their own expectations. The whole company lived in Nashville during the shooting of the film, and they were caught by the spirit of the place (if “spirit” is the word I want). The only part I mistrusted, though Geraldine Chaplin does it with wit, is that of an English TV reporter (she says she’s from the BBC, but it’s hard to credit) whose Art Nouveau finery and finishing school pretensions seem laid on for laughs. It’s the only easy gagging in Nashville; most of the guffaws arise from genuine situations and many will come back to haunt you.
Of course, Altman’s film is not “a picture of America”; it isn’t even a slice of that picture. Nashville is not fair or balanced; it doesn’t pretend to be. It is a wild fantasy, a bouncy, brilliant and cruel caricature of the sort of people some of us are at least some of the time. It’s easy to evade—saying “not me”—but it’s not easy to forget. I suspect that, during this Bicentennial Year, people will see in our towns and cities more traces of Nashville than of Concord—in fact, you could hardly hold a Bicentennial celebration without playing into Altman’s hands. I gather he is proud of himself; he has reason.