In the 70s, before the accountants took over Hollywood and the merits of a film came to be judged largely by its opening weekend gross, there occurred a vivid flowering of cinematic creativity. Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah and more rode the monster surf of the American New Wave but none were more audacious than Robert Altman.
After honing his craft as a documentarian, short film maker and director of television shows, he burst onto the scene in 1970 with the vibrantly shambolic MASH. The green light glowed above subsequent projects and there followed such critically-acclaimed, though less successful, films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and California Split (1974).
By mid-way through the decade, Altman had cemented a reputation both as a visionary film stylist and a perfectionist who would not be cowed by studios or producing partners. Yet scripts continued to flow his way. In 1975, he was approached to direct a film about the country music industry, intended as the debut vehicle of Welsh singer, Tom Jones. Altman, in his characteristic go-to-hell manner, kept the city and dumped the script and star.
The result was Nashville, undoubtedly Altman’s masterpiece, a bold and enterprising delight that just gets better with each viewing. Richly detailed, the foundation was a screenplay by fledgling writer Joan Tewkesbury, responsible for Thieves Like Us. Altman had sent Tewkesbury off to Nashville to scout out suitable storylines. In collaboration with Altman, the resulting script juggled 24 main characters, weaving the entertainment industry and a growing preoccupation with celebrity into the souring of a nation’s spirit by Vietnam and Watergate.
Altman traditionally drew upon a group of regular players for his films and many were earmarked for Nashville. Some early casting selections, however, didn’t play out. Louise Fletcher was the original choice to play Linnea Reese, conservative housewife and mother of two deaf children; Fletcher’s parents were deaf and she had grown up using sign language, experience that Altman incorporated into the final script.
When Fletcher dropped out to play Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which she won an Academy Award), she was replaced by Lily Tomlin. Haven Hamilton, vanguard of Nashville’s country music royalty, was earmarked for Robert Duvall; Henry Gibson, like Lily Tomlin, better known as a comedian on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, took the role and made it his own, down to a hairpiece that seems fashioned from a slumbering Ewok.
Gary Busey was an early casting choice for Tom, the priapic and emotionally distant folk singer which was eventually played by Keith Carradine. Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler both turned down the role of blowsy country music wannabe Albuquerque.
Altman allowed his actors to comprehensively inhabit their characters without censure. Considering a script more of a blueprint than gospel, he requested they improvise their own dialogue as well as write their own songs. His trust was usually well placed.
Jan Stuart, author of The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster, 2000), told of an actor asking Altman whether he’d be in a close-up or a two-shot. “What makes you think you’re on camera at all? Altman replied. “When I say “Action”, just live your life. I’ll either see you or I won’t.”
Some, like Gibson, stayed in character for the entire two month shoot. And a lot of the most memorable moments came not from Altman regulars but newcomers such as neophyte Ronee Blakely, portraying fragile country singer Barbara Jean, based on Loretta Lynn. Blakely wrote four of her own songs as well as the complex rambling monologue for her tragic on-stage emotional breakdown.
The women have the best roles in this film, facilitated by Tewkesbury’s script and Altman’s relish of female points of view. The result is a range of fascinating moral ambiguities; we may not agree with the choices made by many of the characters but we are constantly enthralled and care about them all the same.
Nashville plays towards a final major set piece organised around a political rally. We never see the candidate but, just as it seems the plot will culminate in a political assassination, it all gets turned on its head and one of the performers becomes the target of the opportunistic killer. In this, Altman was far ahead of his time in predicting celebrity assassinations; the quiet, owlish loner who wields the gun bears a disquietening resemblance to Mark David Chapman who, five years after Nashville’s release, would gun down John Lennon.
Another of Altman’s daring experiments was in the area of sound recording, creatively blending several conversations at once to propel plot and character development. Altman used technician Jim Webb, who had learned his craft on music documentaries such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971) and later worked with Altman on Thieves Like Us.
Webb hooked radio microphones to each of the major players in a scene and recorded their dialogue onto individual sound tracks via an eight-track system. Altman could then mix the sound to his exacting standards during the editing process. The disappointment was that, given this revolutionary process, Nashville didn’t get an Oscar nomination in the sound category.
At the end of the two-month shoot, Altman had more than 200,000 feet of film, coming in at about 16 hours of footage. When it seemed that one movie wouldn’t be big enough for his vision, he briefly toyed the idea with creating two films, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue. This didn’t get beyond the planning stage, nor did a television mini-series utilising the extra footage. Decades later, a sequel to Nashville, reprising many of the major characters, was also stillborn.
As it was, the final cut of Nashville ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. Although the critics once again loved it (Pauline Kael of The New Yorker previewed a rough cut in a lengthy review that ran three months before the premiere, calling it “a radical, evolutionary leap” and “the ultimate Altman movie”), it made just $US7 million at the American box office (on a $US2.2 million budget). It wasn’t babka but it also wasn’t the return to financial form that had been predicted.
Altman would spend the next 15 years wandering the cinematic wastelands with ever-decreasing budgets and success until the career-replenishing double-whammy of The Player and Short Cuts in the early 90s.
Nashville, however, remains his great classic, a movie that repays every favour it asks of an audience and is as fresh and inventive as it appeared 35 years ago.
Words © David Latta