Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: The Nashville Chronicles, by Jan Stuart

The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece, by Jan Stuart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 366 pages,  $26.00

Fans of 1975’s Nashville, of which there are many, have reasons to celebrate these days. Finally, we no longer have to get our fix with a grainy set of pan-and-scan videos. Paramount has at long last released a sparkling DVD featuring an interview with director Robert Altman, theatrical trailer, and all the other expected amenities. The image is perfect and the sound is pristine. Given the visual and aural density of Altman’s mosaic, you’re likely to see and hear new things with this new treat.

There is also a companion item, conveniently in the stores at the same time. Newsdayand Advocate film critic Jan Stuart has written The Nashville Chronicles, the first chronological account of the making of this most beloved movie, released just beforeSpielberg and Jaws redefined Hollywood product and marketing. Twenty-six years hence, Nashville looks like a precious relic of an era that passed too quickly. Stuart brings to his book the necessary qualifications for a proper tribute. He has a witty, compulsively readable writing style and an obvious love for the movie.

Nashville still looks like a paean to America and one of the great actor showcases in movie history. Twenty-four characters are woven into the complex tale of a few days in the country music capital, and all command our attention at one point or another. Non-singers wrote their own songs and sound like seasoned pros at the Grand Ole Opry. How did Altman coax so much good work out of so many people? The list of actors who have done their best work under him is lengthy indeed, and a good percentage of them can be seen in Nashville.

Stuart has unpacked Altman in all his complexity. The director’s great trust in the instincts of actors, his ballsy go-ahead spirit despite financial uncertainties, and his unfaithful relationship with the script are all investigated. But he is roasted as often as he is sainted, as when actors Timothy Brown and Ronee Blakley discuss their estrangement from him. Blakley was reportedly confrontational and became the least-liked cast member on the set, while Brown is still smarting from Altman’s cold shoulder. To this day, he doesn’t know how it came about.

The Nashville Chronicle is rich with details that any fan will relish. The scene in the Exit/In bar in which Tom (Keith Carradine) sings “I’m Easy” while several women interpret it as their love song belongs to Lily Tomlin, who gives the movie one of its richest emotional moments. Stuart is quick to give her credit. “Tomlin insists she had no idea where the camera was . . . as she touches her chest with palpable longing. It is a devastating moment, an iconic tableau that arguably contributed as much to Tomlin’s eventual Oscar nomination as any of her speaking scenes in the film.”

Gwen Wells, as the vastly untalented Sueleen Gay, also gets her due. In her infamous strip scene, anxieties were high. Not only was she mortified with disrobing, but the extras were, too. They were decent fellows called upon to desecrate a sad creature, and they found no joy in the job. Writer Joan Tewkesbury said the scene worked because Wells “played it dead, the way you do when you separate your head from your body.” In so doing, Wells brought breathless ambiguities to a scene that was simultaneously funny and disturbing.

There are surprises in Stuart’s text that remind us of the genuine stretch the actors made here. The cast was in awe of Ned Beatty, so far removed was his personality from the smarmy, ineffectual husband and father he played. And who knew that the late Bert Remsen, as gnomish truckdriver Star, was the ultimate gentleman of the entire ensemble? Stuart found him to be “a charming, effortlessly good-humored man, a jewel in the crown of Altman actors.”

Some accounts are expected, as characters and their players mesh. Allen Garfield, who played the badgering husband-manager of country star Barbara Jean, was apparently a bastard on the set. Tomlin was distant, and Stuart attributes that to her lesbianism and the need to protect her privacy. Geraldine Chaplin hated her character of Opal, the ditsy would-be BBC reporter. She wasn’t alone. Most everyone else, cast and audience alike, did, too. Keith Carradine, playing a compulsive cad, was similarly turned off by his character. He finally realized what Altman was up to. Since Tom was filled with self-hate, Carradine’s discontent would show through. Barbara Harris proved to be amply neurotic, offering her own money for the reshooting of a scene she was convinced stunk. It wound up in the finished movie as her soliloquy on the success of a one-dot fly swatter. As told in the cab of a truck stranded in an interstate pileup, it was one of the wonderfully daffy moments she contributed to the film. Barbara Baxley’s fantastic run-on sentence about the Kennedys was borrowed from her own zealous political activism. Only a small fraction of the total speech is in the final edit.

Altman sometimes has trouble ending his rambling episodic ensemble movies. Last year’s Dr. T and the Women is a case in point, as a sprightly sexual roundelay devolves into a weird pseudo-fantasy in the middle of a Mexican desert. The earthquake that finishes Short Cuts works slightly better, but Altman faced the challenge for the first time in Nashville. The assassination works because it’s an American tradition fit for a movie about America. Anyone who questions “why Barbara Jean?” may be implying the sanity of one kind of killing (politicians) over another (entertainers). Despite Tewkesbury’s misgivings, Altman insisted and so ended Nashville on a note of forced audience reflection. It proved to be a master touch.

Stuart offers a whatever-became-of wrap-up, and the results run the gamut of success, failure, and irony. Jeff Goldblum, who played the weird motorcyclist, went on to a hot career that soon made him unaffordable to Altman. Lily Tomlin enjoyed lucrative movie stints for about a decade, while Karen Black went from the ’70s A-list to no budget horror flicks. Others retreated into obscurity and left show business altogether. David Peel, who played the sweet-natured son to Henry Gibson’s singing star Haven Hamilton, took his vows and was last seen ministering in California. He went so far beyond celebrity that Stuart couldn’t find him for an interview.

The Nashville Chronicles satisfies as a literary scrapbook, and I’ve only one bone to pick. The book needs a credit list of cast and crew. More than a few times I rummaged through the back matter in search of something besides endnotes and an index. Why not reproduce the ending credit crawl for easy reference? Paperback publisher, are you listening?

Nashville is one of the great examples of why “dated” is sometimes impotent criticism to level at a movie. This one was made to be dated, and as such it is a brilliant satire of America immediately prior to the Bicentennial. It is a movie about the moment, but the moment lives on. The pride in insularity, the lip service paid to children and spouses, the hypocrisies soothed by a Sunday church service, the celebration of the auto, and the shallow dismissal of politics couldn’t be more stingingly apt then or now. And to double the treat, it’s all delivered with deliciously tacky songs. When Altman and company strip away the satire and duplicity to reveal raw, immediate emotions, the fallout is devastating. Stuart has a fine appreciation for these moments, and replays them with the attention to detail of a connoisseur.