In his original review of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), film critic Roger Ebert referred to the relationships of its two dozen characters as a “microcosm of who we were and what we were up to in the 1970s.” In the half dozen or so times I’ve seen it it has revealed itself to me as this and so much more. The film could’ve been about a particular time and place, sure (five days and nights in the country music capital of the world during a political campaign), and so it is, but it’s about more than that. It’s about men and women. It’s about dreams, ambitions and varying degrees of success. It’s about America.
In his review, three of the key themes that Ebert identified in the film include Women, Success and Politics. Certainly Altman may have been one of the world’s best filmmakers at getting at the heart of women by “suggesting their complexities in ways that movies have rarely done before” and yet he hardly appears to be trying. Altman does a great job of stereotyping and juxtaposing but then moves beyond the stereotypes. Take, for example, the film’s two aspiring country-and-western singers: Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) and Winifred a.k.a. Albuquerque (Barbara Harris). If Sueleen Gay is the prototypical waitress with aspirations toward fame who can’t sing worth a lick, then Winifred is her surprisingly talented counterpart – a runaway redneck wife who haunts the bars, nightclubs and various dives of Nashville looking for a break. Sueleen has the looks, but not the voice – which, inevitably, is how she ends up performing in a smoker for political campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) where she is forced (after two appallingly, laughably bad musical performances) to strip completely naked for a room of hooting, hollering piggish men. This is mirrored, in its way, by the catastrophic climax at the Parthenon where the shooting of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) and Haven Hamilton’s (Henry Gibson) insistence that someone sing to keep the crowd from panicking and “show ‘em what we’re made of,” results in Winifred taking to the stage to sing the uplifting “It Don’t Worry Me” – a moment of triumph born out of sadness rather than the reversal of that in the case of Sueleen.
Altman uses other spiritual and societal doppelgangers to make his point. If Barbara Jean is the once popular country star brought down a peg or two by a medical setback (at the film’s beginning she arrives at an airport for a crowded fan reception after receiving treatment at a Baltimore burn center), then perhaps her rival is sunny blonde Connie White (Karen Black), who clearly doesn’t have any feeling for anyone else in the world of country music yet can put on a smile and a performance at the drop of a hat.
The female doppelgangers aren’t all musical performers. Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) from the BBC, for example, is a reporter doing a documentary on Nashville (without any apparent direction might I add), and yet she seems like a star-struck groupie. Invariably, then, there is the star-struck groupie Martha/L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), who comes out ostensibly to stay with her uncle (Kennan Wynn) and his dying wife and yet spends her entire time in Nashville picking up musicians and those around the music industry (in a sense, she’s almost a walking transitional device from scene to scene in the same way as the Tricycle Man played by Jeff Goldblum).
Finally, perhaps any discussion of the women of Nashville couldn’t be complete without the mention of the love quadrangle at the film’s center. In an astonishing scene in a nightclub, Tom (Keith Carradine) has just effectively left his Peter, Paul & Mary-esque band (Bill, Mary and Tom it’s called) after sleeping with Mary (Cristina Raines), the spouse of Bill (Allan Nicholls). This misogynistic womanizing slimeball – who we will later see call one woman from a hotel room as another leaves his bed – sings the Oscar-winning song “I’m Easy” and there are literally four women in the club at the same time who believe he could be singing to them. Mary is still infatuated with him, sure, but also there are Opal, L.A. Joan and Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), the gospel-singing wife and mother of Delbert (Ned Beatty) who has (apparently) carried on an infatuation with Tom that results in an affair (she is the one leaving his bed as he calls another woman after the nightclub scene).
Altman himself has been accused of a misogynistic streak because of his use of female nudity in his films (MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, Short Cuts, Ready to Wear, etc.) but I believe that he is one of the most feministic of filmmakers – a truly understanding man who saw the plight of women and treated it with tenderness, care and sympathy.