“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“You look like a guy I was in the navy with. He wouldn’t bathe, so we had to pee in his bed to get him discharged.”
Robert Altman loved a rambling story. The kind that is more like real life than a tidy movie structure. Maybe things will build to a big payoff, maybe they won’t. He’s more interested in the journey than the destination. Robert Altman also loved a sprawling, ensemble cast. Maybe their lives will intertwine, maybe they won’t. But you can count on there being at least a few scenes where so many characters are talking over each other, you won’t be able to discern much of the actual dialogue. He made a lot of these kinds of movies like M*A*S*H and Short Cuts, but none had more characters or less narrative, than Nashville.
It’s the week before an election in the titular city, and as a van plastered in placards for candidate Hal Phillip Walker makes its way around town, blaring his stump speech out of loud speakers, all sorts of musicians are experiencing the city in their own way. There’s Havin Hamilton (Henry Gibson) the old guard conservative, wearing rhinestone covered suits while singing about being a proud patriot. There’s Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), the white gospel singer and her husband, Delbert (Ned Beatty).
There’s country music sweetheart Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), recently returned to the public from some sort of accident. There’s smouldering singer Tom Frank (Keith Caradine) and the other two members of his folk trio. There’s a BBC documentary maker named Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), and just as many more people I haven’t named yet who could all be classed as main characters.
Apparently, every song we see and hear in Nashville is being performed live, by the actors, never lip synced. And that makes a huge difference. It even helps that some actors, mainly Tomlin and Gibson aren’t all that strong as singers. Their shaky voices never made me question their legitimacy as singers in the world of the movie. Instead, they made me believe them more. I automatically filled in a back story in my head that they had succeeded despite their shortcomings, because their music was just that good.
Apparently, the screenplay by Altman and Joan Tewksbury was only used as a rough guide, with the actors adlibbing most of the actual dialogue. And like the not so perfect singing voices, the not so perfect line readings work here as well. Sometimes, characters repeat themselves awkwardly, or flub a line, or don’t really make perfect grammatical sense. Without meticulously written monologues and speeches, every emotional exchange comes alive in such a genuine way. Because they were genuine, I guess.
I’m breaking one of my major film watching rules by letting all of this behind the scenes, making of stuff effect my opinion of the movie. Generally, I’m a big believer that the circumstances in making a movie, or a film maker’s intentions should have absolutely no bearing on how people judge the finished product. What’s on the screen is all that matters. Or at least, I usually think that’s the case. But there’s something about Nashville, where picturing the making of it, made me enjoy every scene and every performance that little bit more.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Best Director (Altman nominated, lost to Milos Forman for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Best Supporting Actress (Blakely nominated, lost to Lee Grant for Shampoo)
Best Supporting Actress (Tomlin nominated, lost to Lee Grant for Shampoo)
Best Original Song