Today! Because there’s gonna be nothing left in our graves except Clorox bottles and plastic fly swatters with red dots on ’em –
Directed by Robert Altman (x5)
Starring Lily Tomlin (x3), Ned Beatty (x6), Michael Murphy (x7), Henry Gibson (x6), Keenan Wynn, Barbara Harris (x2), Shelley Duvall (x5), Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley, Geraldine Chaplin (x2), Scott Glenn (x4), Jeff Goldblum (x7), Gwen Welles, Karen Black (x3), David Arkin (x3), Allan F. Nichols (x3), Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen (x4), Allen Garfield (x2), Robert DoQui, Barbara Baxley, Timothy Brown (x2), David Hayward, Dave Peel, Merle Kilgore, Elliott Gould (x4), Julie Christie
The last movie appearing on this list that isn’t my favorite of that given year (tune back in tomorrow for Fav ’75!), Nashville is something that has taken the better part of two decades to grow on me. The first time I saw any bit of it was in college – I was taking some half-assed screenwriting course at Keystone, and they would show illustrative clips along with the written pages, and the scene we watched was Sueleen Gay’s disastrous appearance singing at the gentleman’s club. While it might not make a ton of sense in a screenwriting class on the surface, figure, like most Altmans of the time the movie is improv heavy, so Joan Tewkesbury’s script was more filled with character beats and guideposts than concrete dialogue and heavily plotted scenes. Sueleen’s public singing debut, however, is relatively light on dialogue and heavy on doom, so it’s actually not a bad moment to highlight!
There is basically no single moment from this movie, however, that could prepare you for all the wonders of the full, glorious film – featuring 24 main characters with distinct, intertwined storylines in and around the country and gospel music scenes of ’70s contemporary Nashville, heavily steeped in the politics and mores of the time, rocking and rollicking musical numbers, massive crowded set pieces, all swelling into a huge, unforgettable finale, Nashville covers as much ground as any movie you’ll ever see. I often describe the HBO series The Wire as starting out confined to a crime drama and quickly expanding until it deals with basically every aspect of American life. Nashville, while ostensibly a country/western jukebox musical, functions very much the same way.
While there is no definite main character, the plot largely revolves around shattered megastar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) being courted to endorse/perform at presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker’s rally in Nashville, and all the players connected to her, him, the event, and the city in general. Walker himself never appears on screen, but the politics of the time are everywhere in the film – allegedly they were filming the Grand Old Opry scene the same day Richard Nixon resigned, too! There are plenty of musicians with varying degrees of success, some political hangers-on, community leaders, support staffers, and movie stars blowing through town to fill out the menagerie. To try and describe the plot further would require paragraphs upon paragraphs, so let’s just go with the reception – in as stacked a year as 1975, the movie garnered five Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress for Tomlin and Blakley, winning Best Song for Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy.” It picked up five acting nominations alone from the Globes, for Tomlin, Blakley, Henry Gibson, Barbara Harris, and Geraldine Chaplin, while Gwen Welles got a BAFTA nomination (alongside Blakley). It took home Best Film from the New York Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics, all while One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was winning basically everything else.
There are legitimately far too many actors here to give out a proper MVP, but my favorite character has always been Barbara Harris’s Albuquerque, who flits through the picture one step ahead of her disgruntled husband while trying to shoehorn her way on stage somewhere. In a movie where a lot of marginally talented people get blasted for trying, and a lot of stars get their feelings trampled, her general optimism and sticktoitiveness stands out, even if the audience has no idea if she falls into the former or latter category until the end. The old Second City legend died while we were in London in the summer of 2018, and I watched Nashville on the plane ride home because of it.
MASH is Altman’s most popular film and The Player signaled his return after an ’80s spent on increasingly lower budget play adaptations and television work (Tanner ’88 is amazing, though), but Nashville was the culmination of his entire early career. All the kinks of his distinct style were worked out by ’75, and all the hard won expertise on gritty, grueling shoots like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us paid off in this emotionally explosive, wildly entertaining, amazingly deep study of the human condition and the American psyche. And, I would like to emphasize, I don’t even particularly enjoy country music.
This is Altman’s fifth and final film on the list, following #396 MASH, #365 Popeye, #219 The Player, and #125 Brewster McCloud, making him the 13th member of the directing Five-Timers, while there are a ton of advancing actors, thanks to the repertory nature of Altman’s movies, led by new Seven-Timers Jeff Goldblum (#123 Jurassic Park, #281 Buckaroo Banzai, #10 Annie Hall, #318 Independence Day, #267 The Life Aquatic, The Player) and Jack Tanner himself Michael Murphy (MASH, #205 Batman Returns, #270 The Front, #217 Magnolia, #87 Manhattan, Brewster McCloud)!