(United States, 1975)
Let me begin my admitting that I am not a one of Robert Altman's biggest admirers. Like many Americans, I was somewhat irritated by a recent series of unpatriotic comments attributed to him. (I'm not sure I buy his excuse that they were taken out of context, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.) And I am more often disappointed by his movies than rewarded by them. (Ready to Wear? Kansas City? Dr. T and the Women?) Nevertheless, over the years, Altman has been responsible for four excellent motion pictures: MASH, The Player, Short Cuts, and the crown jewel of his cinematic crown, Nashville. As ensemble pictures go, it doesn't get any better than this – two dozen characters, all interesting and fully-realized, woven together into a flawless tapestry. It's an amazing achievement that even my less-than-enthusiastic feelings about the director cannot diminish. Nashville has stayed with me since 1993, when I viewed a VHS copy of it as a prelude to seeing Short Cuts in a theater. Over the years, it has lost none of its power, and it's a hoot seeing some of today's recognizable names (Jeff Goldblum, Scott Glenn) in early roles. Nashville has a long running time - it clocks in at over 2 1/2 hours – but those minutes go by quickly, in large part because there are so many stories to tell. Another clear indication of how good the movie is that, despite my avowed hatred of country/western music, its prominence never caused my enjoyment of Nashville to waver.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film opens by introducing us to country superstar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who is returning to the concert tour after recovering from burns sustained in a fire. Barbara Jean is arguably still too weak to face the rigors of regular appearances in front of an audience, but she insists on going forward with her plans, regardless of the toll it takes upon her health. Her fellow singer, Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), mouths platitudes of sympathy for Barbara Jean, but is really more concerned with his own career, which has taken a downturn. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean's chief nemesis, Connie White (Karen Black), is using her rival's period out of the spotlight to bolster her own career. As these things are transpiring, Presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker's front men, national campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) and local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are preparing a huge rally for their candidate at the Parthenon, a Nashville landmark. For one of their fundraisers, they hire a local singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), expecting her to do a striptease in front of an audience of drunk big spenders. Sueleen, believing this to be her "big break", agrees to take her clothes off only after she is promised a chance to sing with Barbara Jean on stage at the rally. The folk rock group of Tom, Mary, and Bill find their arrival in Nashville overshadowed by Barbara Jean's comeback. While Bill (Allan Nicholls) haggles with Triplette over the benefits of performing at the Walker rally, Tom (Keith Carradine) and Mary (Cristina Raines) carry on an affair. But Mary isn't the only one Tom is sleeping with. He is also spending time with Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC reporter who is in Nashville making a documentary; Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), Delbert's bored wife; and L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), a flower power girl from California who is in Tennessee visiting her uncle, Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), and her terminally ill aunt. Other characters include a quiet border named Norman (David Arkin), who is staying in Mr. Green's house; a mysterious stranger (Jeff Goldblum) who rides around town on a motorcycle; a military man (Scott Glenn) who has appointed himself as Barbara Jean's protector; and a wannabe singer (Barbara Harris) who gets her big chance in the wake of a tragedy.
Nashville is rightly viewed by many critics as the greatest of all the large-cast ensemble films. Throughout his distinguished career, Altman has been known for working with large groups of actors involved in interconnecting storylines with overlapping dialogue, but never has he accomplished more than what he did here. Even Short Cuts, a powerful and challenging film in its own right, lacks the full emotional and intellectual impact of Nashville. For reasons that have as much to do with the screenplay (by Joan Tewkesbury) and the acting as with Altman's direction, Nashville has been established as the pinnacle to which all other ensemble pictures must aspire, and the standard by which they are judged. Regardless of the criteria applied, Nashville surely must be considered as a modern classic – a motion picture whose scope and influence extend far beyond what is displayed on screen during its 160-minute running time.
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