Friday, March 03, 2006

 

Nashville's rise onto my Top 10 all-time list

NOTE: Ranked No. 4 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


By Edward Copeland
Joining in the Robert Altman Blog-a-Thon ahead of his overdue and richly deserved honorary Oscar on Sunday, I wasn't sure what approach to take. I could do a more detailed overview of his movies that I love or I could concentrate on one. I've chosen the latter tack because Nashville is on my short-hand list for my 10 favorite films of all time and I love it more each time I see it. I'm not going to waste time doing a full-blown review of it — I just want to get personal and chart the course of my relationship with his 1975 masterpiece.


My first exposure to Nashville came in the late 1970s when I was in grade school. This was back when the three television networks routinely and frequently filled their schedules with theatrical films. ABC in particular loved to promote upcoming titles and I believe that was my first exposure to Nashville — in an ABC promo of what movies were coming up. It looked interesting to me, but I don't remember it actually ever playing or having watched it then.

Flash forward to my junior high years when my Oscar obsession was in full swing, my family had finally relented and said goodbye to our Betamax in favor of a VHS and Blockbuster appeared. This was back when Blockbuster seemed to be a movie lover's utopia before I turned on it and never went back into a store. They had a cassette of Nashville so I took it home to watch. Of course, it was cropped, but I wasn't a proper ratio stickler then, and the print was really faded. Still, I fell in love with it almost immediately, even to the point of eventually hooking up two VCRs and dubbing an illegal copy of it, which was of even worse quality than the original.

I'm not sure what initially attracted me so strongly to the movie, but I'm sure part of it is the large ensemble. At the time, my favorite television shows were large-cast dramas such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere and Nashville's broad canvas of characters appealed to me, To this day, I still have a soft spot for multicharacter movies (unless they are undercooked and absurd Altman knockoffs such as Magnolia) and TV shows. (I worship HBO's The Wire — and even I sometimes lose track of who some of the characters are.) The large casts seemed more reflective of life, which at that time centered around school with several teachers and countless students interacting with me throughout the day. It was the same way through college and to my eventual career in newspapers — my life always had a large cast, so TV shows and movies with large casts made sense to me.

Over the years, I returned to Nashville again and again, finding new things each time. My interest in it even led me to watching O.C. & Stiggs on late-night pay cable. I had no idea at the time that it was an Altman movie, but it contained references to Nashville's political candidate Hal Philip Walker and I figured it must be worth a look. Of course, the movie really wasn't, but Nashville is one of those rare films that left me wanting more. There were rumors that Altman would cut a longer version for television and after the success of The Player in the 1990s, even talk of a sequel. I usually frown upon sequels, but I longed for the extended version or a chance to revisit those characters.

Finally, in 1998 or 1999, I happened to be in New York when Lincoln Center held a showing of a restored print of the film — and it was a revelation. Getting to see it in its widescreen glory with crisp colors, I fell in love all over again. I think I spent most of the train ride home humming "It Don't Worry Me." Finally, a few years back, it finally got the DVD release it deserved (and never got on laserdisc) using the restored print and with an Altman commentary. Altman is not only one of the all-time great directors, I've also found him to be the most consistently interesting on audio commentary tracks of his films.

Once I had a chance to interview Altman (alas, it was for the wretched Ready to Wear) and he said one thing that has always stuck with me and that I think certainly applies to Nashville. He said with most movies, it's always better watching them the second time, because the first time you are too preoccupied with what is going to happen. With a second viewing, you can relax and just let the film unfold before you. I think that is true of many of Altman's films —but it's not enough to convince me to look at Ready to Wear again.

I can't remember for sure when Nashville leaped onto my top 10 list — or even when I finally got around to making one, but it's remained there until this day alongside Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, Goodfellas, Network, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Rear Window, The Rules of the Game and Sunset Blvd. My personal rule for a film to be eligible for my all-time list is that a film has to be at least 10 years old, so I can have time to revisit it and not to rush to overpraise it in my initial euphoria. Goodfellas is the most recent film on the list, unfortunately bumping Singin' in the Rain down to 11, but I haven't seen anything between 1991 and 1996 that I think has a shot of landing on this list some day. Perhaps it will happen, but Nashville's place on the list is fairly secure and I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon. Now, if you'll excuse me, I feel like popping in my CD of the Nashville soundtrack.

P.S.: Here's where the 24 actors who made up the main ensemble of Nashville are today.

David Arkin (Norman) had previously appeared in the Altman films MASH and The Long Goodbye would also appear in Altman's Popeye. It was his last film. He committed suicide in 1991. He was 49.

Barbara Baxley (Lady Pearl) last appeared in the 1990 films The Exorcist III and A Shock to the System. She died the same year of a heart attack. She was 67.

Ned Beatty (Delbert Reese) remains one of our most prolific actors. The year after Nashville he received an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for his mesmerizing monologue in Network. He also worked with Altman in Cookie's Fortune.

Karen Black (Connie White) has really seen her star fall since her heyday in the 1970s. She died after a three-year bout with cancer in August 2013.

Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean) never got another role even close to her Oscar-nominated turn in Nashville. Her most recent credit on windup is a 1990 film called Murder By Numbers. She also appeared in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Timothy Brown (Tommy Brown) had a small role in Altman's MASH and would later go on to make several appearances in the TV version of M*A*S*H as Spearchucker Jones. His most recent film credit is 2000's Frequency.

Keith Carradine (Tom Frank) won the only Oscar that Nashville received for writing the song "I'm Easy." He's worked continuously since and also appeared in Altman's Thieves Like Us and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He also has worked extensively with Altman's protégé Alan Rudolph. His most recent appearance of note was as Wild Bill Hickok in the first four episodes of HBO's Deadwood. Ironically, he previously had appeared in Walter Hill's Wild Bill as Buffalo Bill Cody, who of course was also the subject of an Altman movie.

Geraldine Chaplin (Opal) worked again with Altman in Buffalo Bill and the Indians and A Wedding. Her film debut was an uncredited appearance in 1952's Limelight, made by her father, Charlie Chaplin. Most of her work these days is in foreign productions, most notably Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her.

Robert DoQui (Wade Cooley) also appeared in Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians but as before Nashville, most of his work is guest shots on episodic television. He died in 2008 at 74.

Shelley Duvall (Marthe aka LA Joan) has worked extensively with Altman in Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women and Popeye. Outside of those, her most notable films have been The Shining and Roxanne.

Allen Garfield (Barnett) still works steadily with his most notable recent film being 2001's The Majestic.

Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton) also worked with Altman on The Long Goodbye, A Perfect Couple and HealtH. He works steadily in both film and television, appearing on TV's Boston Legal and in the box office hit Wedding Crashers. He died of cancer in 2009 at 74.

Scott Glenn (Pfc. Glenn Kelly) has been a constant presence in movies since Nashville including such notable films as Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff and The Silence of the Lambs.

Jeff Goldblum (Tricycle Man) appeared in Altman's California Split prior to Nashville. He has worked nearly nonstop on stage, screen and TV in films ranging from The Big Chill and The Right Stuff to David Cronenberg's The Fly and blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Independence Day. He also rotated as one of the lead detectives on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Barbara Harris (Albuquerque) always has been a rare presence in movies and television except for this period in the mid 1970s, which also included Family Plot and, close to my heart, her appearance in the original Freaky Friday. She was last seen on screen as John Cusack's mother in Grosse Pointe Blank.

David Hayward (Kenny) most recently appeared in 2003's A View from the Top. He has done lots of TV work ranging from ER to an appearance in the last season of Soap as Slim, a cowboy who gives Jodie (Billy Crystal) a tip as to whereabouts of his kidnapped daughter.

Michael Murphy (John Triplette) went from campaign manager in Nashville to the candidate himself in Altman's great HBO series Tanner '88. He reprised the role in the follow-up Tanner on Tanner and also worked with Altman on Countdown, MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and Kansas City. Other notable films include Manhattan and An Unmarried Woman.

Allan Nicholls (Bill) also appeared in Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, A Perfect Couple, HealtH and Popeye, but most of his work has been behind the camera, often as an assistant director, including on Altman's Streamers, Secret Honor, The Laundromat, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, The Player, Short Cuts and Tanner on Tanner. He also has worked as a producer on all three of the films Tim Robbins has directed and Altman's Quintet.

Dave Peel (Bud) is a bit of a mystery. IMDb lists only one other credit besides Nashville and provides no other information.

Cristina Raines (Mary) has worked mostly on TV since Nashville, including as a regular on the nighttime soap Flamingo Road.

Bert Remsen (Star) was a frequent presence in Altman's films, appearing in Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding and a cameo in The Player. He died of heart failure in 1999 at 74.

Lily Tomlin (Linnea Reese) followed up her Oscar-nominated turn in Nashville with much work on stage, screen and TV, including working with Altman again on Short Cuts and the forthcoming A Prairie Home Companion.

Gwen Welles (Sueleen Gay) also appeared in Altman's California Split. She died of cancer in 1993 at 42.

Keenan Wynn (Mr. Green) was a familiar character actor before and after Nashville. He also appeared in another of my top 10 films of all time, Dr. Strangelove. He died of cancer in 1986 at 70.

Because I can't get enough of Altman this weekend, I thought I'd also toss in a list of my 10 favorite Altman movies.
1. Nashville
2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
3. MASH
4. The Player
5. Short Cuts
6. The Long Goodbye
7. California Split
8. Streamers
9. 3 Women
10. Thieves Like Us


Finally, a self-indulgent trivia question relating to my all-time top 10 list in this piece. Four performers appear in two movies on the list. Who are they?


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Comments:
Altman does give good commentary.
 
Excellent post on NASHVILLE. I loved the American Graffitti scroll at the end...Sorry, but I don't share your view of MAGNOLIA. It's clearly Altman influenced, but it stands up for me.

By the way, QUIET BUBBLE (quietbubble.typepad.com/quiet_bubble/2006/03/movies_ive_seen.html) has put up a blog of DR. T AND THE WOMEN already, too. If your two posts are indicative of the quality of all the other blogs coming, this Altman tribute is going to be special.
 
In answer to your trivia question, the only actors I can think of who appeared in more than one of your all-time top ten are Keenan Wynn (you already answered that one, of course) and William Holden (Sunset Blvd. & Network). The other two I'm stumped on.
 
Yeah, I feel the same way. I've only seen 4 Altman films (Nashville, Popeye, Short Cuts, M*A*S*H) I already reserved some of his work in the library. Yeah, Altman influenced Magnolia but Paul Thomas ANderson turned it into something special making it on my Top 5 favorites (along with Hair, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Citizen Kane,and It's a Wonderful Life.)
 
As an addendum to your where-are-they-now rundown, Robert DoQui pops up briefly in Short Cuts as well.
 
Edward: It's astute of you to recognize that your attraction to the ensemble texture of "Nashville" owed some allegiance to the ensemble texture of your real life. I hadn't thought of that before and think, with myself, it was probably a similar identification. As I've grown older I enjoy ensembles less (except all those disembodied ones out there on the net) but back when "Nashville" first came out it sure seemed true to life.

What a lucky guy you were to have the chance to interview Altman, even if for a movie you didn't care for. His advice is sage. I'm finding too that truly appreciate any film it must be viewed past the grip of anticipation.

The "where are they now?" touch is great. I'm not sure if you're completely fair to Karen Black. I saw on her stage at the Castro Theater here in San Francisco at a tribute screening of Altman's "Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean." If her star has fallen it is only into the safe embrace of fans who still appreciate her. She was way ahead of Felicity Huffman!! At least she's still working, which seemed to be the bottom line for her. She struck me as content.
 
Eddie-

I got it the four actors are:

Ned Beatty: Network & Nashville

William Holden: Sunset Boulevard & Network

Keenyan Wynn: Nashville & Dr. Strangelove

Marcel Dalio: Rules of the Game & Casablanca
 
I'm impressed. In a million years I wouldn't have remembered Dalio. I guess it is tim to revisit "Rules"..
 
Good job Stanley -- I figured Dalio would be the tough one for anyone to figure out.
 
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