“Oh we must be doin’ somethin right to last 200 years…”
— Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in Nashville (1975)
The 1975 Best Picture nominee Nashville is the epitome of an ensemble film. It follows 24 characters as they spend five days wandering around Nashville, Tennessee. Some of them are country music superstars, some of them are groupies, some of them are singers looking for a first break, and at least one of them is an assassin. The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re lost in America. Released barely a year after the resignation of Richard Nixon and at a time when Americans were still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of the 60s, Nashville is a film that asks whether or not America’s best days are behind it and seems to be saying that they may very well be. (That’s a question that’s still being asked today in 2015.) It’s appropriate, therefore, that Nashville both takes place in and is named after a city that everyone associates with perhaps the most stereotypically American genre of music that there is.
Nashville follows 24 characters, some of whom are more interesting than others. For five days, these characters wander around town, occasionally noticing each other but far more often failing to make any sort of connection.
Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a veteran star, a somewhat comical character who sings vapid songs about home and family and who smiles for the public while privately revealing himself to be petty and vain. His son, Bud (Dave Peel), is a Harvard graduate who acts as his father’s business manager. Oddly enough, Haven is an unlikable character until the end of the film when he suddenly reveals himself to be one of the few characters strong enough to keep Nashville for descending into chaos. Meanwhile, Bud seems to be a nice and modest guy until he takes part in humiliating another character.
Haven’s lover is Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who owns a nightclub and spends most of the film drinking. Much like Haven, she starts out as a vaguely comical character until she finally gets a chance to reveal her true self. In Pearl’s case, it comes when she delivers a bitter monologue about volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
Haven’s lawyer is Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty), an obsequies good old boy who is married to gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin). They have two deaf children. Linnea has learned sign language. Delbert has not. Over the course of the film, both Delbert and Linnea will be tempted to cheat. Only one of them actually will.
And then there’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a mentally unstable singer who has come to Nashville with her manipulative husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield). Almost every character in the film wants something from Barbara Jean. A mostly silent Vietnam veteran named Kelly (Scott Glenn) claims that his mother knows Barbara Jean. A nerdy guy named Kenny (David Hayward) comes to Nashville just to see her perform.
Both Kelly and Kenny end up getting to know Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a rare Nashville resident who doesn’t seem to care about music. However, Mr. Green’s spacey niece, L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), is obsessed with having sex with as many musicians as possible.
Among those being targeted by L.A. Joan is Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), one-third of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom. Unknown to Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Tom is sleeping with Bill’s wife, Mary (Cristina Raines). Unknown to Mary, Tom is sleeping with almost every other woman in Nashville as well. When Tom takes to the stage at Pearl’s nightclub and sings a song called I’m Easy, the audience is full of women who think that he’s specifically singing to them.
Another one of Tom’s songs, the appropriately titled “It Don’t Worry Me,” is frequently sung by Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who spend the entire film trying to get discovered while hiding out from her much older husband, Star (Bert Remsen).
Another aspiring star is Sulleen Grey (Gwen Welles), who is a tone deaf waitress who suffers the film’s greatest humiliation when she agrees to perform at a political fund raiser without understanding that she’s expected to strip while singing. Trying to look after Sulleen is Wade (Robert DoQui), who has just been released from prison.
And then there’s the loners, the characters who tend to pop up almost randomly. Norman (David Arkin) is a limo driver who, like everyone else in Nashville, wants to be a star. The hilariously bitchy Connie White (Karen Black) and the bland Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) already are stars. (The character of Tommy Brown is one of Nashville’s oddities. He’s listed, in the credits, as being a major character but he only appears in a few scenes and never really gets a storyline of his own.) There’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), a silent magician who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the film.
And, finally, there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an apparently crazed woman who is wandering around Nashville and pretending to be a reporter for the BBC. (It’s never specifically stated that Opal is a fake but it’s fairly obvious that she is.) How you feel about the character of Opal will probably determine how you feel about Nashville as a whole. If you find Opal to be a heavy-handed caricature, you’ll probably feel the same way about the rest of the film. If you find the character of Opal to be genuinely amusing with her increasingly pretentious musings, you’ll probably enjoy Nashville.
There is one more very important character in Nashville. He’s the character who literally holds the film together. He’s also the reason why I’m including Nashville in this series of reviews about political films. That character is named Hal Phillip Walker and, though he’s never actually seen in the film, he’s still the driving force behind most of what happens. Walker is a third-party presidential candidate, a man who seems to be universally admired despite the fact that his campaign appears to just be a collection of vapid platitudes. Walker’s campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), comes to Nashville and sets up the Walker For President rally. That’s where Nashville reaches its violent and not-all-together optimistic climax.
Reportedly, Nashville is a favorite film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s and you can see the influence of Nashville in many of Anderson’s films, from the large ensemble to the moments of bizarre humor to the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters to the inevitable violence that ends the film. Also, much like Anderson’s films, Nashville seems to be a film that was specifically made to divide audiences. You’re either going to think that Nashville is a brilliantly satirical piece of Americana or you’re going to think it’s a self-indulgent and self-important mess.
As for me, I think it’s great and I think that, after you watch it, you should track down and read Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece. It’s the perfect companion for a great film.