Even by Nashville standards, the scene outside the Martin 100 Oaks Theater on Aug. 8, 1975 qualified as a spectacle. On a hot, gusty Friday night, more than 4,000 people crowded behind police barricades. Some of them had stood in line for five hours. The Tennessee Twirlers, a platoon of star-spangled majorettes equipped with flags and rifles, stood at attention. Atop a 40-foot flatbed truck festooned with red, white and blue bunting, a band called the Silver Spurs reeled off country tunes. The white-hot beams of searchlights swept the sky.
It could have well been some sort of grandiose political rally. But the elections were over. Just the day before, U.S. Rep. Richard Fulton had won a landslide victory over Earl Hawkins to become the second mayor in Metro Nashville history. And here was Fulton, smiling and waving to the crowd, along with incumbent Mayor Beverly Briley.
The steel arm of a construction crane had lifted a 60-by-80-foot American flag into the sunset. But by 6 p.m. the flag was coming down. The hot August wind was snapping the massive flag like a locker-room towel, and, with the festivities barely under way, a decision was made to rescue the flag and fold it away. The last thing the makers of the movie Nashville wanted was to cap the film’s local premiere with an image of Old Glory lying in the dust.
The gala premiere of Nashville was the most eagerly anticipated event of the summer. During the previous year, ever since the production company had finished shooting its local footage, curiosity about the film had reached fever pitch. The previous March, The New Yorker’s influential film critic, Pauline Kael, had pronounced a barely finished three-hour cut of Nashville “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” Kael’s review alone had triggered waves of controversy, mostly from other reviewers, who were angered that they hadn’t been invited to the private screening. By the time the movie had finally opened in New York in June, it had become a cause célèbre. Its studio, Paramount, had confidently booked Nashville into two adjacent screens on the East Side. It filled both theaters daily. In every major national publication, critics and editorial columnists debated the movie’s merits; gossips speculated about the lead characters’ real-life counterparts, identifying everyone from Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette to Roy Acuff and Hank Snow. In its cover story for June 30, 1975, proclaimed that Nashville was director Robert Altman’s “epic of Opryland” and “everything a work of social art ought to be but seldom isimmensely moving yet terribly funny, chastening yet ultimately exhilarating.”
Back in Nashville, however, the locals were getting nervous. According to some critics, among them Robert Mazzocco in The New York Review of Books, the movie portrayed Nashvillians as gullible rubes at best and heartless automatons at worst. Others, including syndicated reviewer Rex Reed, agreed, but declared that Nashvillians deserved what they got. “[The film] floats like navel lint into the vulgar Vegas of country and western music, that plunking, planking citadel of bad taste called Nashville, Tenn.,” wrote the former star of .
Even the most positive advance reviews carried an implicitand sometimes explicitcondescension toward Music City in general and country music in particular. “Country-and-western basically dresses up folk music in rhinestones and spangles, making hay out of Americana,” Jay Cocks wrote in Time. Despite an unequivocal rave from The Tennessean’s Eugene Wyatt, who declared himself “a Nashvillian who loves his city and wishes it well,” word still filtered back that the movie was anti-American, anti-countryand anti-Nashville.
With a mixture of anxiety and dread, musicians, producers, music-industry personnel and civic boosters alike had awaited the film’s local premiere. Hardly anybody, though, had any intention of missing it. As the 7:15 p.m. show time neared, long lines of limousines snaked down Powell Drive toward the Martin. While flashbulbs popped and fans applauded, dozens of celebrities and local dignitaries emerged from their vehicles, crossed a red carpet and ducked inside the theater.
The audience, half of whom were invited guests, formed a cross section of the city as broad and colorful as any Altman could have devised. On hand from the music industry were established hitmakers Dottie West, Brenda Lee, and Billie Jo Spears; Opry veterans Roy Acuff (who left before the movie started), Minnie Pearl and Del Wood; new country superstar Ronnie Milsap; producer Billy Sherrill; and the great Webb Pierce, whose raw honky-tonk sound was fading in popularity. Sheriff Fate Thomas was there to appoint cast members as honorary deputies. Tennessee First Lady Betty Blanton represented the governor. While Altman himself was busy shooting his next film, stars Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, Keith Carradine and Dave Peel represented the film’s makers.
Outside, while the Rutherford County Square Dancers clogged, the celebrity-studded crowd slowly disappeared into the Martin’s auditorium. The few remaining tickets for the performance were sold to eager patrons, who had begun lining up outside the box office shortly after noon. Once the theater’s 741 seats were filled, at approximately 7:40 p.m., the lights in the theater dimmed, and the words “A Robert Altman Film” flashed on the screen.
What followed was a visual and aural cacophony, a credit sequence modeled on the commercials used to sell repackages of country hits on late-night TV. As a pitchman hawked the names of the movie’s 24 principal actors, their representative “hits” scrolled beside a painting of the entire cast. In the center of the Pana-vision screen, one word in bold, tilted type overwhelmed everything elsethe word “NASHVILLE.” The applause for the title was loud, long and appreciative.
Two hours and 39 minutes later, the crowd that remained outside behind the police barricades saw the audience begin to emerge from the theater. The ensuing madhouse made the front pages of both daily newspapers. It made all three evening news broadcasts and was carried in columns from Atlanta to Italy. Exiting audience members were ambushed by print, TV and radio reporters anxious for comment. Some audience members, among them Buddy Killen, then executive vice president of Tree International, had enjoyed the movie. “I loved it,” Killen told the papers. “I was not offended in any way. It was a great piece of work.” Others were guarded. Dottie West said she liked it OK, although she expressed concern that the movie’s only redhead did a strip number. “It was very interesting,” Minnie Pearl told the Banner’s Bill Hanceand then, with uniquely Southern diplomacy, she concluded, “Sure is good to see you tonight.”
The majority of the Music Row insiders, however, were not quite so reserved. “I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day,” Ronnie Milsap told Hance, “and this is one of them.” Brenda Lee said that she had “one word” that would describe the movie, and her husband, Ronnie Shacklett, begged her not to say it. “The only way it will be a big movie is for it to play a long time in the North,” Lee told Hance. “That’s what the people up there think we look like anyway.” Producer Buzz Cason commented, “It was so bad, it was different.”
The harshest remarks came from Billy Sherrill, who, when asked by a journalist what he thought of the music, retorted, “What music?” Asked what he liked best about the story, Sherrill snapped, “I’ll tell you what I liked about the filmwhen they shot that miserable excuse for a country music singer.”
Twenty years have passed since Nashville’s premiere, and opinions about the movie remain as divided now as they were in 1975. “I can’t tell you how many people whose opinions I respect place it among the top 10 movies of all time,” insists Gene Wyatt, who believes now, as he did then, that Altman’s film is “one of the landmark efforts of the art.” In direct contrast, music executive Charlie Monk, who attended the 1975 premiere, remembers Nashville as “just bad,” an insult perpetrated “by people with no knowledge of the blue-collar-folk idiom.”
Banner editor Eddie Jones, who in 1975 was executive vice president of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, sounds a note of moderation. “The civic leadership-type people felt it was not representative of the city,” Jones recalls. “Honestly, I don’t think anybody paid a hell of a lot of attention. It just kind of tippy-toed into town and tippy-toed out.”
This weekend, a 20th anniversary tribute to Nashville headlines the 26th annual Sinking Creek Film/Video Festival on the Vanderbilt University campus. One of the people most responsible for the movie’s vision of Music City, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, will return to Nashville for the first time in years to host the Saturday-afternoon screening. A new generation of Nashvillians will gaze into Robert Altman’s funhouse mirror of America. To many of them, his vision will hardly seem distorted at all.
In 1974, Robert Altman had been approached by a studio executive with an original screenplay called The Great Southern Amusement Company, a musical set in the world of country music. The director was less than enthusiastic about the script“I didn’t like it,” he flatly told ’s Charles Michener, stating that it was “just a fake, a script”but he proposed another feature in its place, one with a similar country-music setting.
At the time, Altman told interviewers that he knew little about country music. To get the project under way, he contacted Tewkesbury.
The two were frequent collaborators. Joan Tewkesbury had first worked with Altman as a script supervisor on his 1971 western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. When Altman was dissatisfied with Calder Willingham’s script for Thieves Like Us, he had called in Tewkesbury to assemble a new one. Tewkesbury was well acquainted with Altman’s painterly approach, and the director dispatched her to Nashville to soak up material for a script.
Her first week-long trip to Nashville consisted mainly of historical sites and visitor-approved tourist attractions. “I got the docent’s tour of the museum,” said Tewkesbury last week, speaking from her home in California. For her next trip, she “very quietly went around on my own” and hit some of the clubs on Lower Broad, then home to some of Nashville’s finest unrenovated honky-tonks.
“I asked some of the musicians at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where I should go,” Tewkesbury remembers. They steered her to funky little restaurants and pickin’ parlors off the beaten path. She took in the Grand Ole Opry, then in its last days at the Ryman Auditorium. “I loved the Ryman so muchit made accessibility to the performers so natural,” she recalls. She sat in unobtrusively at some of Loretta Lynn’s recording sessions, where, she says, banter flowed and all the session musicians “had a barnyard animal’s name.” (In Tewkesbury’s finished script, a country star gripes that he wants “Pig”the famed Nashville session pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbinsfor his recording sessions. Instead, he has to settle for a second-string pianist named Frog.)
Tewkesbury enjoyed the city, she says, because it reminded her of Hollywood in the 1940s, “when everybody wanted to be a star and all these glamorous girls sat around on drugstore stools waiting to be discovered.” As she returned more frequently to Nashville, though, she noted a subtle change in the city’s mood. “Everybody was losing their innocence,” she explains. “The country was losing its innocence.”
In the spring of 1974, while Tewkesbury was completing her screenplay, the national news was dominated by the Watergate hearings. Consumers were plagued by the first signs of economic inflation, as well as the threats of an energy crisis triggered by unease in the Middle East. Many Americans were numbed by the prolonged tension and unrest of the Vietnam conflict and the civil-rights struggle. Viewers no longer flinched as extreme brutality and bloodshed became a regular part of TV news coverage.
The violence had even reached Nashville and the seemingly peaceful music industry. On Nov. 11, 1973, the popular Grand Ole Opry comedian David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife, Estelle, returned to their farm on Bakers Station Road after finishing an Opry show. They arrived just as three robbers were ransacking the house. One of the intruders murdered both Akeman and his wife. Tewkesbury witnessed the impact the murders had on Nashville. “[There] was a whole aspect of Nashville that got tighter and tighter, and people got scared,” she told The Tennessean just before the movie’s release. “It had been so open the first time I came, and as I kept going back things became tighter and tighter.”
All of Tewkesbury’s observations found their way into the patchwork of the screenplay’s crazy quilt. As evidence of the Watergate conspiracy inched ever closer to the White House, the cloud of disillusionment seeped into the scriptmost poignantly in the character of Sueleen Gay, a talentless would-be country singer whose dreams of stardom are cruelly exploited. Altman’s only initial instruction to Tewkesbury was to end the script with someone’s death. In the original draft, the sacrificial lamb was Sueleen, who responded to her humiliation by taking a bottle of pills.
By the time Tewkesbury turned in her script, she notes wryly, Altman had decided that “there should be larger issues at stake.” Instead of Sueleen’s personal tragedy, the director devised a plot thread involving a political candidate planning a Nashville rally, which would climax with an assassination attempt. By the time filming commenced in Nashville in the summer of 1974, the political subplot had become the unifying device holding together the movie’s diverse elements.
Ultimately, Altman’s film was filled with delicious ironies and double-edged jokes. Even during the credit sequence, the announcer promised that the movie would proceed “without commercial interruption.” Nashville, however, takes place in a world largely defined by commercial interruptiona world where political advertisements resound in the streets, where salesmanship casually intrudes upon social gatherings, where people conduct business even in a traffic jam. Fittingly, the movie opens with an ad, a poster for a third-party political candidate named Hal Phillip Walker. Throughout the film, his red, white and blue Replacement Party van appears and reappears, blaring vaguely populist senti-ments from its loudspeakers.
The movie employs a deceptively loose structure, following the comings and goings of some 24 characters during a five-day period. Nashville begins with the birth of a record; it ends with the death of a recording artist. At the outset, Opal, a BBC reporter (Geraldine Chaplin), arrives to do a story on Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) as he records “200 Years,” a ham-fisted ode to the U.S. Bicentennial. In another studio, Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a white, upper-middle-class gospel star, cuts a record with a black choir. Across town, at the Nashville AirportBerry Field in 1975fans arrive to welcome the reigning queen of country music, the fragile Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who is recovering from a burn injury and a near-nervous breakdown. A folk trio, Tom (Keith Carradine), Bill (Allan Nichols) and Mary (Cristina Raines), breezes through town, while a rising country singer, Connie (Karen Black), seizes the opportunity of Barbara Jean’s ailment to take her place on the Opry.
Crossing their paths are a variety of peripheral characters who never quite connect with the principals: a drifter (Jeff Goldblum) who performs magic tricks, a soldier (Scott Glenn) quietly obsessed with Barbara Jean, an elderly man (Keenan Wynn) monitoring his wife’s illness in the same hospital where Barbara Jean recuperates. Over the course of the five days, while Walker’s political advance man, the cynical apparatchik Triplett (Michael Murphy), attempts to round up entertainment for a rally, relationships dissolve, affairs commence, careers decline and fights erupt. The movie’s many plot lines converge at an enormous rally outside the Parthenon, where an assassin’s bullet robs the world of one country-music starand another quickly rises to replace her.
In Altman’s cracked post-Watergate vision of America, Nashville replaces Washington as the new symbolic center of the country. The president of the United States had hidden himself from the people, and even Hal Phillip Walker never actually appears on screen. In the absence of political leaders, people searching for guidance look to the kings and queens of country music, whose messages provide comfort and reassurance. (“We must be doing something right to last 200 years,” Haven Hamilton sings.)
In many ways, the America depicted in the movie seems more like a monarchy than a democracy. In her first appearance, Barbara Jean, greeted like royalty at the airport, is presented with a bouquet of roses; in the movie’s shattering conclusion, she is deposed like royaltyby deathand her successor takes her place. In Nashville Altman predicted that, as media attention became a measure of status, the fastest route to celebrity would be to kill a celebrity. It’s strangely appropriate that in the following year’s similarly themed , a poster for Nashville appears.
Nashville was the culmination of Altman’s years of tinkering with densely layered sound and unconventional narratives. In the five years since his breakthrough commercial hit, , in 1970, the director had experimented with an innovative technique for telling stories on film. He allowed plot, ambience and characterization to develop through overlapping conversations and an alert, yet consistently fluid, narrative style. New directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese employed highly kinetic techniquescomic-book angles, shock editingto convey sensation, but Altman stood back from his tableaux like a man appreciating a work in a gallery, letting his camera zero in on any detail that he found worthy of attention.
Altman’s reliance on improvisation and flexibility, coupled with the solid foundation of Tewkesbury’s script, gives Nashville an overwhelming richness of detail. “He was able to bring out the creativity in everyone on the set,” remembers Nashville illustrator Bill Myers, who frequently visited the set. It was Myers who created the painting shown behind the opening credits. “[Altman] was fascinating to watch,” Myers says. “He inspired the actors to bring their own experiences into the movie.” When the time came to shoot Barbara Jean’s onstage breakdown, Myers recalls, Altman intended for Ronee Blakley to play the scene almost catatonically. Instead, Blakley suggested a rambling, disconnected monologue about home and family, one of the most pathetic and chilling moments in the finished film.
The director instructed his soundmen to mic every person in a scene, so that minute fragments of conversation would be captured on tape. “Everybody was walking around with these packs under their clothes,” Myers recalls. When the conversations were layered together, the result was a tapestry of sound, an astonishingly lifelike effect unlike anything else heard before in American movies. Altman encouraged viewers to choose, listen and pay attention at will. For that reason Nashville rewards multiple viewings as few other movies do. The shock of watching Nashville today is one of liberationthe freedom of encountering a work of art that doesn’t anticipate, manipulate, or engineer its viewers’ every response.
From a cinematic standpoint, it’s easy to see why Nashville caused such a furor when it premiered in the summer of 1975. What’s harder to see, after the sledgehammer excesses of subsequent media satires, ranging from Network to Natural Born Killers, is why the movie offended so many people, particularly Nashvillians. Compared to the genial condescension of a star vehicle like Steel Magnolias or the outright prejudice of a tub-thumper like Mississippi Burning’s portrait of the South seems downright generous.
Many details about the movie’s depiction of Nashville still hold true 20 years later. Altman and Tewkesbury viewed Nashville in 1975 as a mecca for people with no roots of their own. Disenfranchised fans embraced country music, the music of working people, as the last tie to a heartland America where traditional values seemed to be disappearing. (The slogan of Walker’s campaign is “New Roots for the Nation.”) Locals who complained that Nashville was an outsider’s view of the city missed the point that Nashville is a city outsiders, from transplanted executives to country-music hopefuls with guitars slung over their backs. The movie captures the city’s peculiar biggest-small-town-in-America ambience, a town where, even in a crowd of 1,000 people, you’re sure to recognize at least one face.
The sad truth of the movie’s characters, though, is that they’re as isolated from each other as they are from their country. A repeated motif in the movie is the struggle of people trying, and failing, to reach one another through music. A budding country singer (Barbara Harris) gets a chance to sing at a raceway but is drowned out by the roar of the cars. Haven’s son (Dave Peel, one of the only real singers in the cast) sings a little tune to Opal, which she blithely ignores. When the elderly man’s wife dies, a soldier clumsily attempts to reach out to him by gushing about Barbara Jean. Country music in the movie is portrayed as both painkiller and panaceathe movie’s constant refrain, “You might say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me,” becomes a sort of group mantra in the moments after the assassination.
None of the movie’s political observations particularly galled the premiere audience at the Martin 100 Oaks. What infuriated them most was the music itself. With the aid of music director Richard Baskin, Altman encouraged his actors to write their own songs. Thematically, the decision was an unquestionable success. The songs the cast contributed comment directly and indirectly on the action, from Henry Gibson’s “Keep A’Goin’ ” (which ultimately reveals a much more noble side of Haven’s personality than we expect) to Keith Carradine’s plaintive “I’m Easy,” sung at the Exit/In. (In a brilliantly conceived and executed scene, he sings to an audience of adoring former conquests, each of whom believes he’s singing to her.)
Within the movie, the songs worked perfectly, providing running commentary and parody. On the movie’s soundtrack album, however, they came across as limp, badly sung, one-dimensional cartoonsand that’s exactly how the Nashville audience of musicians and industry figures heard them. To them, bypassing the city’s wealth of gifted singers, songwriters and musicians in favor of a group of L.A. dilettantesand then presenting the actors’ off-key warbling as an accurate reflection of Nashville musicseemed an insufferable slap in the face. “How easy it would’ve been to get Harlan Howard to write those songs,” Charlie Monk observes. “It was just another attempt to do a parody of something we were very serious about, and the general public thought it was sincere.”
So did high-minded reviewers, who added injury to insult by using the movie’s fake country to indict the real thing. Anyone who thought Nashvillians were being too thin-skinned had only to read the musings of conservative columnist George F. Will, who lambasted the filmmakers for lampooning middle America. Nashville, Will said, “is to America what country music is to musicnot a close approximation.”
“Nashville and its Grand Ole Opry have so little to do with the rest of the nation,” complained Rex Reed, “that it seems like a poor metaphor for the disintegration of American society.”
By 1975, Nashville’s music industry was already in the midst of its own identity crisis, an ongoing debate about its own roots and authenticity. In 1975, the Country Music Association awarded its highest honor, the Entertainer of the Year Award, to non-Nashvillian (and, many argued, non-country) artist John Denver. The award incensed country purists, who rated aw-shucks buffoonery such as “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” only a notch above the songs recorded for Nashville. Performers such as Denver, Olivia Newton-John and Anne Murray topped both the pop and country charts, while stone-country reliables such as Hank Snow and Webb Pierce found it increasingly difficult to get airplay. In Nashville, musicians and record labels alike began to wonder what really constituted country music.
That same uncertainty extended to the rest of the city. The dominant image of Nashville in the country’s mind, as Charlie Monk puts it, was “people jumping up out of a cornfield.” Civic leaders who wanted to attract new industry to Tennessee in the mid-1970s found themselves confronted by the public perception of Nashville as Hee Haw and hillbillies. At the Chamber of Commerce, Eddie Jones remembers, “there was some concern that a country-bumpkin image would run off East Coast types.” Meanwhile, Jones says, the Chamber “wanted to establish Nashville as a metropolitan area with a reliable labor supply, a good work force and a good interstate system.” To civic boosters, Nashville merely shackled the city once more with the image it so desperately needed to shake.
Still, even the movie’s detractors predicted Nashville would be a tremendous commercial success. They were wrong. Nashville grossed a modest $10 million, which paled alongside the year’s commercial blockbuster, Jaws, the unprece-dented success of which altered forever the scale and expectations of major-studio filmmaking. At the Academy Awards ceremony the next year, Nashville received six nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and two nods for Best Supporting Actress, one to Lily Tomlin and the other to Ronee Blakley. It lost every award but onethe award for Song of the Year, which went to Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy.”
Joan Tewkesbury went on to a major career as a writer and director, as did Altman’s assistant director, Alan Rudolph, who made such films as Choose Me and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Jeff Goldblum went on to star in Jurassic Park, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Scott Glenn, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin and costars Ned Beatty and Shelley Duvall have all enjoyed subsequent success and critical acclaim.
After Nashville, Robert Altman’s career entered a long stretch of artistic and commercial frustration, a decade-long struggle with studios, projects that never got off the ground, and uneven material that was often unworthy of his talents. Starting with 1990’s Vincent & TheoThe Player, a delirious portrait of Hollywood skullduggery that had the assurance and technical mastery of his best work.
In a final juicy irony reported in Patrick McGilligan’s critical study Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, Altman became in 1983 a member of a privileged club: He was the co-writer of a No. 1 country hit, the John Anderson song “Black Sheep.” (Altman’s cowriter, Danny Darst, was to achieve his own screen immortality by portraying one of the two cops butchered by Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.)
How has the movie itself held up as a metaphor for America? In the 20 years since Nashville was released, America has witnessed an unparalleled explosion in the popularity of country music, the ascendancy of not one but two Southern presidents, the courting of country-music stars by political parties, the assassination of a popular musician, and the rise of a third-party candidate who launched a grass-roots campaign with an elusive populist platform. In the meantime, Rex Reed became the cohost of an obscure public-television movie-review show that had been abandoned by at least one previous pair of reviewers.
Coincidence? Maybe the audience at Nashville’s premiere at the Martin had a reason to feel uneasy. Life, especially in the age of movies, has a habit of imitating art.
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