"Only time I ever went hog-wild... around the bend... was for the Kennedy boys. But they were different."
In a way, Robert Altman's Nashville is a bookend to 1970's M*A*S*H, which addressed the country's misgivings about Vietnam behind the smokescreen of the Korean War and a madcap mobile surgical unit operating in Southeast Asia. While the city of Nashville is a much smaller canvas, it stands in for a more expansive concept, contemporary America at its Bicentennial. The memorable cast of characters—sycophantic lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), womanizing folk singer Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), Napoleonic country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson)—rival those of M*A*S*H in terms of eccentricities and surpass them in number. They form a microcosm of the country after the disillusionment of Watergate, the collapse of the idealism of the 60s, the assassinations that marked that era, a satirical apotheosis of all of the critiques Altman and screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. first lobbed at the country in M*A*S*H.
Maybe because it is set in the world of country music, I never really gave Nashville a chance before I started writing about film. In retrospect, this seems dumb given that I'm a big fan of Altman and it is often called the apex of his filmography. Today's Criterion release of the respected film gave me the opportunity to finally assess it in a way I don't think most others have seen it, divorced from the context of its reputation as an impactful, important motion picture. Despite its place in Altman's oeuvre, I still had some trepidation about finally experiencing it, for many reasons. Would my awareness of its importance and my years spent avoiding it lead to disappointment? Happily, I can say Nashville is actually nearly as good as critical consensus indicates. I say "nearly" because it still doesn't replace movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye, my all-time favorites. But Nashville would be a considerable achievement for any filmmaker. How does a director wrap their arms around its sprawling, almost unwieldy observation about a cross-section of the Music City's inhabitants?
The heart of Nashville really resides in its cast of female characters. Perhaps because it was borne out of the framework of screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury's experiences when she visited the Athens of the South to lend some authenticity to the film, it is the women who stand out more here than in any other Altman ensemble. Ronee Blakley's Loretta Lynn clone, Barbara Jean, is both spirited and emotionally drained. Gwen Welles' waitress cum aspiring country singer Sueleen Gay humiliates herself by stripping at an event for the unseen political candidate whose election campaign is the framing device for the movie. And it is the quote at the top of this piece, by Barbara Baxley's Lady Pearl, that serves as the film's spine.
More of Lady Pearl's drunken lamentations concerning the Kennedys:
...and then comes Bobby. Oh, I worked for him. I worked here. I worked all over the country. I worked out in California, out in Stockton. Well, Bobby came here and spoke, and he went down to Memphis. And then he even went out to Stockton, California and spoke off the Santa Fe train at the old Santa Fe depot. Oh, he was a beautiful man. He was not much like John, you know. He was more puny-like. But all the time I was working for him, I was just so scared... inside, you know... just scared.
The funny thing about Nashville is that it feels at once both of its time and still extremely relevant. Just like M*A*S*H seemed prescient in light of the corruption that would out in the Nixon years, Nashville predicts the conflation of the public with the private, of politics and entertainment, with the only hope for us lying in the wounded but resolute women that serve as anchors for their egotistical male partners. The crisp brilliance of Criterion's gorgeous Nashville Blu-ray transfer fully represents what it's like to watch the movie right now. Nashville might have been released nearly 40 years ago, but it feels like it could have been made just yesterday.