Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)

(Originally posted on 22 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

Since I first saw Nashville, I’ve considered it to be Altman’s greatest achievement. With a career like his, that’s saying something. So what makes Nashville stand out from his other classics, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, California Split, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye, and the made-for-TV Tanner ’88? Perhaps it’s that, more than anything else Altman made, Nashville feels like the ultimate Altman movie, a summation of what made him such a legendary filmmaker — impeccable ensemble acting, a keen sense of place, political engagement, and a love of performance in all its forms.

Nashville is often described as a film with two dozen protagonists, but while there’s no principal character in the story, the world we see in the film revolves around Barbara Jean, a country superstar played by Ronee Blakley. Many of the big events in the film focus on her — the ceremony at the airport at the beginning, her onstage nervous breakdown, and the concert/campaign special gone bad at the finale. But while we see Barbara Jean throughout the film, we rarely get to see her outside the public eye. She smiles beatifically for the camera, but this is just play-acting. Who is she? Does she even have a last name? The film never says.

It’s mainly for this reason that, when I tried to come up with this week’s Movie Moment, I kept coming back to her one private moment, away from her fans and the press. After the collapses following her airport reception, Barbara Jean is rushed to the hospital, and as a result has to cancel an appearance on the Grand Old Opry radio show. As her replacement, Connie White sings in her stead, Barbara Jean and her husband, Barnett (Allen Garfield), sit alone in the room and listen. We don’t find out until later that Barbara Jean and Connie have a professional rivalry, never appearing together on the same stage, but hearing Connie on the radio angers Barbara Jean, and she demands that the radio be switched off. Barnett insists on listening, saying that he needs to listen so that he can properly thank Connie for stepping in for her. This sets Barbara Jean off:

“You’re going over there, and I know why… so you can hobnob with everybody, and I ain’t got not friends, I gotta sit here in the goddamn hospital. Everyone’s gonna be talking about me, saying how I’m a nut, how I had a- ‘Barbara Jean had another collapse…’ You know what? Why don’t you take her some of my flowers?”

One thing that’s immediately apparent in this scene is how fragile Barbara Jean really is. Much of modern popular music, country music in particular, is founded on the belief that its stars are just like regular people. While the film’s other stars, like Connie White and Haven Hamilton, can act the part, Barbara Jean is a natural — Altman and Ronee Blakley see that she smiles big for the camera not because her fans want her to, but because she’s genuinely happy to be in the spotlight. But it’s because she’s the genuine article, because her public feelings are real rather than faked, that success and fame have taken a toll on her in ways they wouldn’t for others. Later in the film, mid-breakdown, she relates to the audience that she began singing as a child, and it’s clear that she never quite grew up.

But just as fascinating, if less apparent on first viewing, is how this scene illuminates Barnett’s character as well as Barbara Jean’s. Our first impression of Barnett is as an angry, short-fused man, tagging along with his wife and seemingly leeching off her success — your standard-issue husband/manager. However, if you watch this scene carefully, we see that there’s more to him than that. Allen Garfield’s performance shows us a man whose life is concerned almost entirely with taking care of his wife, both in good times and bad. He proclaims, “Don’t tell me how to run your life; I’ve been doing pretty good with it,” not as a bitter rejoinder, but as a statement of fact. When he insists on leaving the hospital to thank Connie White, it’s because he’s trying to keep up appearances even when Barbara Jean cannot. “I don’t like to go over there and hobnob with them phonies,” he says.

If Barnett speaks to Barbara Jean like a child sometimes, it’s because she is essentially a child, and the little game they play as he’s leaving — “I’m walkin’ out now… what do you say? Say bye-bye” — is a perfect encapsulation of this. Barnett, who had appeared such an unsuitable match for Barbara Jean, is shown to be exactly the kind of husband she needs — simultaneously manager, father, nurse, and giver of tough love. Garfield’s performance, which at first glance fades into the background of the film, comes into sharper relief the more you watch Nashville, and is a great argument in favor of Altman’s assertion that his films be watched over and over.

Omnipotence over his chosen world is the right of any filmmaker, but precious few really exercise that right. What made Altman truly great (and inimitable, despite hundreds of attempts) was his knack for peering into even the most remote corners of his films in order to study the lives of the characters that lived there. The final moments of my chosen scene sum this up perfectly. Just after Barnett has left the hospital room, Barbara Jean sits cross-legged on her bed, a shell-shocked look on her face. She turns her head toward the door and whimpers after him, “Barnett?” While many filmmakers would have left the room with Barnett, this would have been a mistake, done in the interest of keeping the story moving instead of illuminating the characters. Altman knew better, and these final few seconds are the final brushstroke that makes the scene perfect and complete.

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