Think this is one of those seminal films that make people foam at the mouth about the 1970’s being the best-ever movie decade. Usually I’m skeptical, but this one lives up to the rep. Can’t believe it took me this long to watch it. One of Altman’s scattershot ensemble pieces illustrating life, sex, violence, media and politics over one weekend in the mid-70’s, closer to the messy truthfulness of Short Cuts than the more conceptually-unified Prairie Home Companion. Plot, then, defies simple description, so here are a bunch of character sketches instead.
Solo Opry stars:
Tommy Brown and Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson, suspicious neighbor in The Burbs) are the friendly male stars, while Connie White (Karen Black of Burnt Offerings, House of 1000 Corpses) and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley, Nancy’s fred-krueger-killin’ mom in Nightmare On Elm Street) are bitter rivals. BJ is recovering from exhaustion, acts slightly crazy throughout the picture.
Up-and-coming band “Tom, Bill & Mary” consists of relatively uptight Bill (Altman regular Allan Nicholls), Mary (Christa Raines of Ridley Scott’s The Duellists) who is married to Bill but secretly sleeping with Tom, and bearded free-spirit Tom (Keith Carradine of Street of No Return) who sleeps with near every girl in the movie.
Third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker (inexplicably running in state “primaries” in a misuse of political language) is often heard but never seen. His campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy of Tanner ’88, X-Men 3) is everywhere, trying to recruit music stars for a rally. Del Reese (Ned Beatty of Deliverance, Network, Stroker Ace) is a heavy dude assisting Triplette. Triplette basically tricks Haven and Barbara Jean into appearing at the climactic rally.
Off on her own is BBC journalist Opal (Geraldine Chaplin, the year before Noroît). I was happy to see her at first, but her character is so awfully self-absorbed and oblivious to the world and personalities that she’s purportedly researching, she soon became mere comic relief.
The ever-present magician-looking guy on a three-wheeled hog was Jeff Goldblum’s third movie role (California Split was his second). Shelley Duvall, in the middle of her Altman film streak (ended with Popeye) plays a flamboyant girl often explained away with “she’s from California.” A boarder at her house named Kenny shoots Barbara Jean at the rally in the final scene, and the guy who tries to stop him, army private Kelly (Scott Glenn, just played Rumsfeld in W.) has been stalking B.J. throughout the movie. Poor Sueleen Gay (a great name, played by Gwen Welles of California Split) is an enthusiastic red-haired waitress who wrongly thinks she can sing, reduced to strip-teasing at a pre-rally bar party.
Sueleen’s coworker Wade looks out for her. Sad Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn, guy leading the attack on General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, also in Point Blank, Piranha, Laserblast, Parts: The Clonus Horror) is the California girl’s uncle; his wife dies in the hospital. Barnett (Allen Garfield of Brian De Palma’s early films) is Barbara Jean’s controlling husband/manager. And Lily Tomlin, in her first film, is campaign fella Del Reese’s wife, mother of two deaf kids, who sneaks away to sleep with former flame Tom of the trio.
Movie made piles of money. Won piles of awards except at the oscars (lost to Cuckoo’s Nest), baftas (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and grammies (Jaws). Acting awards were difficult – Golden Globes gave it four nominations just for best supporting actress, surely a record. Lots of gossipy maybe-true bits online: Nashville was going to be two movies, the unused footage was to become a miniseries, and a sequel was written and cast before falling apart.
Shot in wide-ass cinemascope with no close-ups (by the D.P. of Coffy and Silent Movie), so screenshots aren’t much help. Would be reeeeal nice to see on the big screen someday. Did not play the DVD commentary by Robert Altman because I didn’t want to listen to him drift in and out of sleep for 2.5 hours.