It was 40 years ago this month that Robert Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville” hit screens, but the arrival hadn’t come unannounced. In March, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael had taken the extraordinary step of reviewing Altman’s three-hour rough cut and proclaiming it an “orgy for movie-lovers,” a “pure emotional high,” and, finally, the “funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” Kael also predicted that its box office was going to “take off into the stratosphere.”
She was wrong about that, but four decades later, she has been proven right on everything else. “Nashville” is one of the best movies of the last 40 years and one of the most influential. It was so indelible that Altman spent years developing a sequel — which is a story all its own and one that has never been fully told.
At the time of the film’s release, Altman was already established as one of the country’s most innovative and iconoclastic filmmakers, having won his reputation with “MASH,” then taking both plaudits and brickbats for his oddball parable “Brewster McCloud,” his revisionist western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and his revisionist noir “The Long Goodbye.” His movies were loose and loopy, meandering, jam-packed. But none that preceded it was quite like “Nashville,” an extravaganza telling the intersecting stories over three days of 24 characters — among them would-be singers, successful singers, a few housewives, a BBC reporter, a political operative and a lost soul — and how they all happened to wind up at a rally for an unseen presidential candidate at Nashville’s very own full-scale model of the Parthenon.
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The film’s fragmented storytelling, its nonstop intercutting among its characters, its improvisational approach and pioneering use of sound, in which each actor was separately miked and words keep overlapping (“That’s how people talk,” Altman said), broke the rules and showed the way for others willing to challenge the Hollywood verities.
It began with a Time cover story on country-and-western singer Loretta Lynn that coincided with a script on C&W music that United Artists’ David Picker had given Altman in the hope UA would at least get a soundtrack album out of it. Altman didn’t care for the script, and, according to his widow, he didn’t much care for country music either. But something about the music intrigued him, so he casually asked Joan Tewkesbury, who had written the script for “Thieves Like Us,” which he was shooting in Mississippi at the time, if she would go to Nashville on a kind of fact-finding trip to see if there might be the basis for a movie there. Tewkesbury came away startled by the town’s similarity with Los Angeles when she was a young dancer. In both cities, she says now, “Everybody had a dream.”
She returned to Nashville a few months later, stayed a week and a half, and began to shape the movie in her head — a kaleidoscopic film about disparate characters intersecting and colliding in their search to achieve their dream. (She said she was thinking of Altman’s “MASH” in interweaving characters.) Sharing her notes with him, she joked that she supposed the movie would have to end with a death, which had become de rigueur with him, and he said it did.
He also thought it needed a political subtext that would connect the 1975 film both to the nation’s impending bicentennial and to the recent Watergate scandal, which he thought revealed the dysfunction of our democracy. So he hired a Mississippi operative to organize a campaign for the imaginary candidate, Hal Philip Walker, whose hollow platitudes are pumped over a loudspeaker throughout the film. That made for a lot of moving parts. Tewkesbury says it took six months for her to absorb Nashville, though only two or three weeks to write the script.
After David Picker at UA dismissed the script, serendipity came. One of the nation’s preeminent music managers, Jerry Weintraub, was hosting a party for John Denver in New York, and among the guests he invited was Altman, whom he admired but had never met. Altman pulled Weintraub aside, and over a shared joint, the director told Weintraub that he had a script about music.
Weintraub was eager to enter the film business, but he remembers that he “hated” the script, then amended that to say, “Not so much that I hated it, but that I didn’t understand it. There were so many characters, so many plots, and so much going on.” Altman invited him to lunch and proceeded for several hours to describe the film, scene by scene, visualizing everything. Now Weintraub was hooked.
Alas, the studios weren’t. Weintraub said that everyone wanted to work with him, but no studio wanted to work with Altman. They told him the director was a “pain in the ass.” But Weintraub was undeterred. He decided that he would finance the picture himself if need be, and he asked a film executive friend what he should demand from Altman in return. “Final cut,” the friend answered. Weintraub said he delivered the news to Altman at Altman’s new Malibu home. “He went ballistic,” Weintraub remembers. “I thought he was going to have a heart attack.” But Altman capitulated because by now he was desperate to make the film.
And then, Weintraub says, he got a telephone call from Leonard Goldenson of ABC. Goldenson was one of the founding fathers of network television, though he had begun his career owning Paramount Theaters, and told Weintraub that he missed the film business. Goldenson made Weintraub an offer: ABC would finance “Nashville” in return for four showings on the network. It wasn’t much of a risk. The picture cost only slightly more than $2 million, a budget Altman could make because the actors and singers agreed to work for practically nothing. , “Every actor wants to be a singer, and every singer wants to be an actor,” is how Altman put it.
Next stop, Tennessee
And so Altman convened his movable party in Tennessee.
“We would have drinks, and we would have food and snacks, and everybody — the crew right down to the craft services — everybody would come to dailies,” remembers Altman’s widow, Kathryn, who was on location throughout. “It set up a really joyful and jovial environment.” Weintraub, visiting the location, remembered it a little differently. “Everybody was stoned. And it worried me. There was an awful lot of white powder in the rooms. It was going around like candy.” But Weintraub said he was also impressed by Altman’s sense of calm in the storm.
Altman’s working method had always been spontaneous, which would lead detractors to complain that his films were haphazard. But Altman welcomed actors’ contributions, and if he didn’t prearrange everything in the manner of a Kubrick or Hitchcock, he would post-arrange them once he saw what he had. In this case Tewkesbury provided the structure, the situations and most of the words, but actors were encouraged to improvise.
Barbara Baxley, playing a club owner, wrote a soliloquy on the Kennedys; Geraldine Chaplin, playing a pretentious BBC reporter, wrote her own semi-coherent lobservations; and newcomer Ronee Blakely, playing the emotionally fragile C&W queen, Barbara Jean, wrote a breakdown scene that is one of the most astonishing things in the film. A sequence intercutting among various churches was whipped up and then shot one Sunday morning when Altman suddenly decided that the film needed a religious interlude. And Altman worked fast. The film was shot in just six weeks.
Neither Weintraub, Tewkesbury nor Kathryn Altman recalls feeling that the film felt particularly special when it was being made. Afterward was something else. Altman knew he might have trouble with his distributor, Paramount, because of the film’s length, so he set up the screening for Kael, a longtime supporter, and Kael’s pre-review created the buzz. When Weintraub insisted that Altman condense a four-hour, 15-minute version, the director countered that they could show it in two parts. Weintraub objected, and eventually Altman trimmed it to a brimming 159 minutes.
Tewkesbury expected the film to be polarizing, and she was right. Some critics called it a mess and superficial. Some felt it was condescending, making fun of its Nashvillians. Others objected to the assassination of Barbara Jean at the end, calling it gratuitous and unbelievable. When John Lennon was assassinated, Altman felt he was vindicated, and his wife said that he dined out on his prescience for years. Most, however, shared Kael’s enthusiasm. It was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and director, and won an Oscar for Keith Carradine’s song “I’m Easy.” Still, after a big start, it grossed less than $10 million. It was a classic without being a hit.
Series or sequel?
And yet “Nashville,” with its scope, its narrative complexity, and its dead-on understanding of a country besotted with easy dreams of success, stuck in the American consciousness. That led to discussions between Weintraub and Altman about turning the film into a TV series, before Weintraub concluded that they were movie people, not TV people, and that a film sequel was a more viable path.
By this time, nearly a decade had passed since the movie’s release, and Weintraub admits, “I knew he was going to make four or five pictures that went south. I wanted to wait until he had some failure, so I could control him a bit.” Now he could. So Weintraub and Altman sketched out a loose story line in which Lily Tomlin’s character, Linnea, decides to run for governor of Tennessee, and approached Tomlin, who expressed interest.
Naturally, Altman brought the idea to Tewkesbury, telling her that “we would take these characters and show how awful everything had turned out.” When she didn’t show much enthusiasm he brought it to another collaborator, Robert Harders. Like Tewkesbury, who met Altman through theater connections, Harders came to Altman from a small Santa Monica theater where Harders had staged a play titled “The Last Tape and Testament of Richard M. Nixon,” starring Philip Baker Hall. One night Altman came backstage, praised the production, and later told Harders that he wanted to turn it into a film, which he did.
Altman asked him to work on a screenplay that never got produced, then another, an adaptation of Hemingway’s “Across the River and Into the Trees,” then on an aborted Burt Reynolds project. Harders says he remembers the moment Altman brought up the “Nashville” sequel. Harders and his wife were dining with the Altmans at their Malibu house when Altman mentioned it “almost as if he were saying, ‘Could you pass the potatoes?’”
Harders was “dumbfounded. That began what turned out to be an odyssey. As with Tewkesbury, Altman gave Harders virtually no guidance, only a brief outline of what might have happened to the characters in the decade since the first film. Meanwhile, Harders said he was looking for a “big idea” around which the script would coalesce.
He worked first in Paris, where Altman was in pre-production for the comedy “Beyond Therapy,” then returned to L.A. and took a trip to Nashville, where the thing that impressed him most was not the dreaminess of the place but the museums dedicated to the singers. The memorialization of these entertainers was, he thought, a phony revisionism — a way of reimagining the past to fit our desires. In this, he says he was influenced by Christopher Lasch’s book, “The Culture of Narcissism.” Nashville, he felt, had become a capital of narcissism.
Apparently Altman warmed to this idea and to Harders’ other extrapolations: not only Linnea as a gubernatorial candidate but her ex-husband (Ned Beatty) as the local D.A. who has married the tone-deaf singer Sueleen (Gwen Welles); C&W icon Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) as a cable TV mogul; and folk singer Tom (Carradine) as husband to the flighty L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall). Like the first “Nashville,” this one also ended with an onstage death: that of the elderly woman who had saved Barbara Jean from a fire and whose nondescript son would later kill the singer. Eventually, Harders even figured out how to resurrect Barbara Jean herself: in the person of a Barbara Jean female impersonator.
Harders says he worked full time for two years on the script and wrote two dozen drafts. (They are in the Robert Altman Papers at the University of Michigan.) By the end, he had found his “big idea.” If the original Nashville was about our thrall to dreams and our submersion into our illusions — “You may say that I ain’t free,” goes the final song, “but it don’t worry me” — the sequel would be about how those dreams get corrupted by money and fame and pride so that they no longer inure us. Altman had said he wanted a darker film than the first one. Harders gave it to him. No character in the sequel survives unscathed.
And that was the shoal on which the project was breached. Weintraub felt it was too dark and says Altman came to feel the same way. Moreover, Harders recalls that Weintraub, through an associate, demanded that the script blueprint exactly what was going to be shot — “It’s gotta be on the page to be on the stage” — even though Altman had never worked that way. And to further complicate matters, Tomlin was said to be concerned about carrying the picture rather than being just one of the ensemble.
There never was a moment, says Harders, when the plug was pulled. He just remembers getting a call from his agent that he wasn’t going to get paid anymore. “I don’t think they had any faith in Bob,” is how he now analyzes it. Later Altman would ask him to write “Short Cuts” (he didn’t), and the two remained friends. He still sees Kathryn Altman. There was a talk of a “Nashville” Broadway musical, but that didn’t go anywhere. Harders eventually left L.A. with his artist-wife for upstate New York to start a nonprofit and work in theater. And that was that.
But 40 years later, “Nashville” remains — a tribute to Tewkesbury, Altman and a brilliant cast, and to the confluence of Watergate, the American bicentennial, and our unshakable penchant for plowing ahead, protected by our illusions. It is a film for the ages.