October 7, 2012

Nashville (1975)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Ronee Blakley, Ned Beatty, Keith Carradine

What it's about. An ensemble-cast exploration of the Nashville music scene, set in the Bicentennial year of 1976. Michael Murphy and Ned Beatty are political operatives for unseen independent Presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. They are assembling Country celebrity talent for a benefit concert. Beatty is the unlikely indifferent husband of Lily Tomlin, mother of their two children, both deaf.

Tomlin is being pursued by country-rock star Keith Carradine, whose need for female companionship has turned his personal life into a series of one night stands. Besides Tomlin, his other conquests are tactless would-be reporter Geraldine Chaplin; slutty airhead Shelley Duvall; and hottie brunette Cristina Raines, who is unhappily married to guitarist husband Allan Nicholls.

Besides the usual Altman fascination with who is sleeping with whom, Nashville presents a strict hierarchy of entertainers, with stars at the top and wanna-be's at the bottom. Riding high is Henry Gibson, an arrogant but dedicated Grand Opry singer; and Ronee Blakely, the leading female star despite increasing emotional problems, perhaps exacerbated by her oafish hard-driving husband, Allen Garfield.

Lesser stars, but stars nonetheless, include black country singer Timothy Brown and Blakely's understudy Karen Black. The struggling but surviving singers are represented by Barbara Harris. At the very bottom is Gwen Welles, a talentless singer who is allowed entry solely for men to leer at her figure.

But that's not all. In minor supporting roles are Robert DoQui, perhaps the most emotionally honest person in the film, soldier Scott Glenn, who is fixated with Ronee Blakely; Keenan Wynn, an aging sad sack with an ill wife; Dave Peel, the easygoing son of Henry Gibson; Berbara Baxley, wife (?) of the elder Gibson with a surprising crush on the Kennedy brothers; and Jeff Goldblum, who seems attached to his oddball motorcycle. David Hayward appears to be a musician freshly arrived to try to make it big, but it turns out he has a different agenda.

David Arkin and Bert Remsen are also featured but they made no impression on me. Actor Elliot Gould, actress Julie Christie, commentator Howard K. Smith, and fiddler Vassar Clements appear as themselves.

How others will see it. Previous efforts by highly regarded director Altman encouraged favorable critical reception for Nashville. The movie was also a modest box office hit, and actor Carradine scored a top 20 hit with "I'm Easy," which is better as a composition than as a performance.

That hit snagged the movie's only Oscar win, though it was nominated in four other categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (comedienne Lily Tomlin and obscure singer Ronee Blakley).

Today, Nashville ranks as one of Altman's most popular films, overshadowing even MASH, a superior though less ambitious entry. At imdb.com, Nashville has a fairly lofty 7.7 user rating, though women give it a slightly lower 7.3. The lack of a dominant character or plot, plus a nearly three hour running time, are turn offs for less patient viewers.

How I felt about it. The movie certainly is interesting. For me, the fascination is the difference between how the viewer sees a character, and how that character is perceived by other characters. Also, our initial judgment of a character sometimes turns out to be incorrect.

For example, Henry Gibson appears to be ill-tempered and vainglorious, but by the climactic scene, it is clear he is a hero with great respect for the musical tradition of Nashville. Kenny Frasier looks like yet another would-be Nashville session man, but isn't. Carradine is always on the make, but in a compulsive, nearly desperate manner instead of out of overweening narcissism.

On the other hand, our snap decision about most characters is validated. Geraldine Chaplin is incompetent as a reporter, and has a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing. Yet she is welcome wherever she goes, perhaps due to the slack naturally given to even a moderately attractive woman.

Then there is the music itself. When I eat at restaurants, I am sometimes subjected to contemporary country music. From that I have concluded that the last good country song was Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar", and that came out nine years ago. Most country radio hits are slicker than a mudslide and as phony as a three dollar bill.

Measured by that lowly standard, the soundtrack to "Nashville" is much better. Most of the songs were written by the actors performing them, and they do a credible job, especially Henry Gibson and Ronee Blakley.