Both Kinds of Movie: Robert Altman’s Nashville


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.”

Henry Gibson takes the Ewok for a walk

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

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Hitting The Jackpot At The Casino House: A Mid-Mod Community’s Links With Old-Time Las Vegas


NOTE: When this first appeared in 2011, the location of the Casino house was a bit of a mystery. Now, it’s all over the Internet. This piece has been amended and expanded in June 2014 to reflect this.

Sometimes it pays to ask and, if you don’t get the answer you want, keep asking. Persistence pays off eventually. It just takes a little time.

I’m a big fan of Las Vegas, that glittering, gaudy and spiritually gluttonous mirage in the Nevada desert. I especially love its history, the tangled path by which it travelled from being an illicit getaway in the middle of a sun-parched nowhere to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

There’s something for everybody in Vegas: flashy ultra-luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with giant grandly tacky homages to ancient Egypt, King Arthur’s Court, classical Rome and the canals of Venice.

Unlike Los Angeles, where there’s more aspiring actors per square metre than anywhere else in the world, in Vegas everybody unashamedly wants to be rich and they have just about every way imaginable of making that happen. Most, of course, don’t and more shattered dreams lay congealing in the city’s neon glow than in a Nathanael West novel.

The archetypal Las Vegas movie is Casino, Martin Scorsese’s ultra-violent 1995 depiction of old-time Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. The idea being that fiction sometimes has nothing on real life, Casino is based on the story of Frank Rosenthal, the professional gambler who institutionalised sports betting in 1970s Vegas and ran a few casinos for the Mob while he was at it. Robert De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a thinly-veiled Rosenthal.

I’d been trying for some time to locate the house on the edge of the golf course in which De Niro and Stone (as his wife, Ginger, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) lived. I’d initially contacted local journalists who specialised in Vegas history and ended up corresponding with author and Vegas buff, Steve Fischer, whose excellent book, When The Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder (Berkline Press, 2005) is required reading on the city’s lawless adolescence. Get it at Amazon. There’s also an audio version on iTunes.

CasinoDeNiro

I’d initially contacted Steve about an Australian showgirl, Felicia Atkins, the star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana, Bugsy Siegel’s old casino, in the 50s and 60s. Felicia was Vegas royalty, centerfold of Playboy’s April 1958 edition and appeared with Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) before retiring and moving back to Australia where her trail went cold. Other former showgirls who’d worked with Felicia reported that she’d returned to Vegas a few times for Folies Bergere reunions but none had contact addresses; seems she didn’t stay in contact with too many of her associates.

Then, purely by luck, I found her although it was very much a good news / bad news scenario. Yes, she was still alive, living in an aged care facility north of Newcastle, New South Wales. No, she was far removed from any attempt to recall her glory days as she was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease and her memories had long since evaporated.

A staff member at the home recalled that, in the early days of her arrival, she’d shared her stories about being a Vegas showgirl but not too many people took her seriously. Felicia did, however, love teaching others to dance. The cruel reality that is Alzheimer’s has robbed us of first-hand recollections of those heady days.

Anyway, back to the Casino house. Steve Fischer thought the Casino house was located on the 17th hole of the Desert Inn Golf Course and had been demolished to make way for Steve Wynn’s $US2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas development. In trying to verify that, a very helpful soul at the Nevada Film Office confided that the house was still very much in existence, a little further east on the edge of the Las Vegas National Golf Course.

The National started life in 1961 as the golf course for the Stardust Casino, in 1969 was renamed the Sahara-Nevada Country Club, changed its name to the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club in 1994 and four years later acquired its current designation . These days, the National’s website mentions the Casino house but, when I was looking, it took a fair bit of detective work. So, armed with the film office’s clues, I started driving around the housing development hugging the golf course.

Happily, I found the house quite easily and it looks almost exactly as it did when Scorsese filmed there. If anybody is interested in paying a visit, the address is 3515 Cochise Lane.

I’m sure the owners are pretty weary of tourists snapping their property and I’d advise against knocking on their door and requesting a guided tour of the walk-in wardrobe. But they live in a little piece of movie history and, hopefully, they’re understanding about it.

Australian showgirl Felicia Atkins, star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana
Australian showgirl Felicia Atkins, star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana

Since then, I’ve learnt that the Casino house is a cherry on a far larger slice of old-time Vegas history. The golf course and the huge surrounding residential area was built at the same time and named Paradise Palms. The task of creating a homogenous design character to the development was given to the architectural firm of Dan Palmer and William Krisel, which already had mileage in that other time-capsule of mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of Krisel’s Palm Springs designs is perhaps the most famous of all the city’s mid-mod houses, the one where Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed on their honeymoon. It features on every Palm Springs bus tour.)

It was a planned community in that buyers had to choose between certain Palmer & Krisel designs, although numerous variations (in such areas as roof line, decorative finishes, allowing the homes to be rotated at different angles, even having Hawaiian influences as options on some models), allowed individual expression.

Entertainers, casino executives and, inevitably, more than a few “made men”, the people who fed the furnace of Las Vegas, called Paradise Palms home. Some of the casinos also kept homes there for visiting entertainers. Amongst the Palm’s more famous residents over the years have been Bobby Darin, Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds, Dionne Warwick, Juliet Prowse, Max Baer Jr (Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) and lounge music pioneer Esquivel.

It should come as no surprise that even Frank Rosenthal himself lived there (although not in the house where Casino filmed). And, on a personal note, I’m extremely pleased to report that Frederic Apcar, the producer of the long-running Casino de Paris show at The Dunes (and whose 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville I own – see http://www.davidlatta.org/2011/08/29/a-classic-link-to-old-time-las-vegas-the-dunes-frederic-apcar-and-the-casino-de-paris/ ) was also a resident.

Drive the streets of Paradise Palms and you’ll find a haven of low, long mid-mod homes. There was a time, when the mobsters’ reign ended and Vegas went legit (or gave every appearance of such), morphed into Disneyland and went all out to attract families, that Paradise Palms went into decline. Without regular maintenance, the built environment doesn’t survive long in the harsh desert conditions and these beautiful homes cracked, split, warped, leaked, fell apart.

The erosion would have continued had mid-century aesthetics not become so fashionable in recent times. Now, bit by bit, the tide has turned. New residents with a respect for the past have moved in and restored these wonderful homes back to their former glory.

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Nero and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Nero and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino

Paradise Palms has its own website – http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com – and Facebook page, while a host of other retro-obsessed sites breathlessly report on PP’s latest developments. The like-minded new arrivals socialize together and spread the gospel: remember, respect, retain.

When, like Felicia Atkins, the real thing is way beyond our reach, it’s still possible to visit a time when style was supreme. The residents of Paradise Palms have it better than most. They can live their dreams in ways most of us can only imagine.

For further retro and old-time Las Vegas info, go to:

http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com

http://www.classiclasvegas.com

http://www.veryvintagevegas.com/2014/05/22/the-loving-restoration-of-a-mid-century-modern-home-in-paradise-palms-las-vegas/

http://www.whenthemobranvegas.com/

Words ©2014 David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.