Better than AFI’s Top 100: 1

The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

We’re finally here. The big guns – 2001, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Godfather, Vertigo, Citizen Kane – have all gone. Which leaves us with:

1) Nashville (1975), directed by Robert Altman.

I’ve written about Nashville before, mostly on its final scene at the Parthenon, which is as perfect a scene as one can hope to see in a movie. I also recognize that Nashville is not often in the debate for “best American movie ever made,” although the choice is significantly less out of left field than you’d imagine. Forty years later, Nashville gets the “one of the best movies of the ’70s” treatment pretty frequently, but then again, people have a hard time deciding if it’s even one of Altman’s best movies of the ’70s. This is no small debate: Altman made thirteen movies in that decade. I honestly think that hurts him a little when people think about this kind of grandiose topic. It’s much easier to call Kubrick the greatest American director of the ’60s (granting that he’s an American, sigh, let’s move along) when he made four movies in ten years. Coppola is the knee-jerk answer to greatest American director of the ’70s, when he made four movies in ten years. It’s easier to grab on to four movies than it is thirteen. Coppola’s four movies, although they can be ordered endlessly, tend to be thought in order of quality to be GodfatherApocalypse NowPart II, and The Conversation. I think Altman’s best in this decade is Nashville, followed by McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Personally, I’d put up 3 WomenThe Long Goodbye, and then…Thieves Like Us? A Wedding? M*A*S*H*? Someone else might, and probably would, have a totally different order. The point is, it’s hard enough to decide on what Altman’s best movie, although most filmmakers have an obvious number one, or at least something close to it. I think if you took a straw poll among movie critics nationwide, they’d probably put Short Cuts at the top.

Yet Nashville certainly is critically adored. AFI has it ranked 59. They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? uses its amalgamation system to call it the eighty-fourth best-reviewed movie ever. Sight and Sound voters tied at seventy-three with Grand Illusion, L’eclisse, The Third Man, and Children of Paradise. BBC Culture gave it the single highest ranking I’d ever seen before among American movies in 2015 when it came in at fourteenth. Ten years ago, I think people would have looked at this as an out of left field pick. Now I’m not so sure. The fact that Nashville is trendy doesn’t give me more credence – in ten years, Short Cuts might be that trendy pick – but it’s nice to know other people are on my wavelength.

Nashville is usually prefaced with some note about the twenty-four actors with named characters in the movie. Altman’s legacy is the giant ensemble movie, where you stick a zillion people in a spot (Nashville, Los Angeles, a Southern wedding, an English manor) and let the sparks fly. I think that that the sheer number of people we follow around is overblown, but as in any ensemble movie this giant, the editing has to be perfect. Dennis M. Hill and Sidney Levin are unsung heroes of Nashville, but the film moves smoothly, gliding from person to person and situation to situation without stammering. In the first half of the movie, the character with the most plot gravity is Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who is screamingly funny. Henry Gibson was only 5’4″, and other characters, like 6’1″ John Triplette (Michael Murphy), aren’t above making a crack about his height here and there. We see Haven during the opening credits, singing a song written about the Bicentennial, but perhaps “singing” is a strong word. His songs are declaimed as much as they are sung. It’s not that I think Gibson can’t sing – for those of you who have seen the animated Charlotte’s Web, I’m pretty sure he’s Wilbur’s singing voice too – but that Haven Hamilton doesn’t have that in his system. “We must be doing somethin’ right,” he orates, “to last 200 years.” Who’s not doing something right is Frog, one of the session musicians who has for some reason earned Haven’s ire. (Frog is played by Richard Baskin, who was the musical supervisor for the movie. More on that later.) Eventually Haven storms out of the recording studio, but he points his finger at Frog first. “You get your hair cut!” he tells him. “You don’t belong in Nashville!” Nashville, according to Haven’s appearance, is the land where glorious sideburns can let fly in white and give an incredible contrast to the just-too-perfectly-coiffed auburn thing on top of his head. It must also be the land of nudie suits, which Haven is never seen out of.

He’s made a great success in country music on the backs of songs like “Keep a-Goin'” (“And if the weather kills your crops, keep a-goin’!”) and “For the Sake of the Children,” which is about a man cooling off his extramarital affair because he’s a father with growing littluns. I almost cry laughing every time. Triplette manages to get him onstage at a rally for Hal Philip Walker through flattery: Hamilton has the name recognition to be governor of the state. I don’t know if you can govern from a nudie suit – one would be too glorious! – but Haven certainly thinks that’s likely. He lives for attention and recognition; he’s decided that his ultimate goal is to be venerable. At a bar one night, Haven plays host as Julie Christie comes to the table where he and an upstart but popular singer, Connie White (Karen Black). He knows she’s won an Oscar, but can’t remember what movie it’s for, in fact can’t seem to name any of her pictures. Connie has never heard of Christie (who is English), but Haven recognizes her and makes it known that he thinks she’s “lovely.” Earlier that day, Elliott Gould shows up at Haven’s little mountain retreat to some fanfare from Haven’s other guests. The host tries to protect his guest from Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), another Brit, who claims to be from the BBC doing a piece about Nashville and the country scene, but whose total dearth of credentials or proof give us the goods on her. Opal throws herself at Gould, but Haven, who has seen her before, pushes her away. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here,” he says, “but I will not tolerate rudeness in the presence of a star.” He gives a look to Gould, and then reconsiders. “Two stars,” he says unabashedly. This belief that he’s a star (Gould has never heard of him) gets him into a little trouble. At the bar where Julie Christie drops in, someone gets up on the mic and gives a little speech. There’s a country star here, etc. etc., maybe we’ll get a song, etc., and all this time Haven is just rising out of his seat a little, ready for the man with the microphone to call his name and for the applause to wash over him. It’s for Connie, and Haven sits down real quick and claps politely. “Rolling stone!” she sings. “Gathers no moss, but neither does it gather any love!” Haven’s obsession with being noticed and adored is what moves him. Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay is not one of those word-for-word renditions, but it’s a magnificent one. Not only does it keep track of all of its characters, but it is absolutely sure of who they are as people; Tewkesbury understands perfectly what drives each character, and how each of their hurts affect them. Haven begins to fade out of the movie about halfway through, and as the focus of the story really begins to center in on Barbara Jean.

While it’s Haven’s movie, though, Nashville is riotously funny. Altman will end shots or whole scenes on the punchline of a joke with such precision that it only makes the characters funnier. Opal’s a bit of a maneater. She’s been cooking up a tiny romance with Bud, Haven’s business manager son, and at Haven’s estate Bud is surprisingly vulnerable with her. He’s written a song himself – everyone in Nashville has a song in their back pocket – and it’s a tender one about the love of a good woman. Opal appears to be into it, swaying slightly, until something catches her eye. While Bud is still singing (and Dave Peel is a pretty fair singer), she cries out, “Oh my God, it’s Elliott Gould!” and runs off to see him. I’m ashamed at how hard I laugh at that moment. Jeff Goldblum is mute in this movie, but he has some magic to him; Robert DoQui’s reaction to a little magic trick he does in which he tosses some salt on his plate of food is sensational. DoQui has somebody else give a reaction later on: he sits with Linnea Reese, a white sometimes gospel singer married to an attorney, Delbert (Ned Beatty), at a bar while she watches an act. She went because she had a thing once with independent, arrogant Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), who’s part of a tortured little pop-folk trio with a married couple, Mary (Cristina Raines) and Bill (Allan F. Nicholls). As she watches them have it out onstage through an especially violent rendition of a song called “Since You’ve Gone,” Wade decides to sit with her. Bill, Mary, and Tom are popular as heck, and as much as any performers not named Barbara Jean, people seem to know their songs. Even when Wade is drunk, he knows the words, too. “Since you’ve gone,” he sings out drunkenly. Lily Tomlin, a national treasure, makes the following face.

Nashville may be a comedy for about ninety minutes, but it’s sure as shootin’ a musical throughout. As the comedy begins to burn away a little bit, as we get through a massive pileup on the highway and a night at the Opry, the film’s most important character gets more playing time. Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley, the only actual country singer they got for this movie) is fragile. She is the biggest star in country music, but she’s recuperating from a fire at the beginning of the movie and faints dead away on the tarmac when she comes back to town, right in front of news crews and a great big crowd of folks to welcome her. (Haven Hamilton, bless his heart, sends an enormous flower creation to her hospital room: it’s a lyre, with “HH” in the middle. This movie kills me.) After a little time in the hospital, she’s freed up to perform again. The two songs she does, “Tapedeck in His Tractor” and “Dues,” give us a sense of why she’s so beloved. I still haven’t gotten the first one out of my head (and neither has my wife, who has never forgiven me), and the second is gorgeous.

Part of it is Blakley’s appearance that sells the song, her acting when she’d never acted before. She has a willowy, delicate frame anyway, but in the white dress she’s never seen out of, with giant bows in her giant hair, there’s a sense that this is a barely grown up little girl in a costume. (Allen Garfield plays her browbeating husband and manager, Barnett, whose interactions with Barbara Jean certainly infantilize her.) Yet she has this wonderful voice, and while she’s singing she has the quality that people love Adele for: she looks like someone is ripping her heart out. During “Dues” she appears to be near tears, and everyone is just spellbound in the audience. The best musicals – and Nashville is one of them – recognize that their songs are a way to develop character without relying on dialogue or action. We learned that Haven is old-fashioned and homey, that Connie is simple, that Bill (via “I’m Easy”) is attractively spellbinding but emotionally vacant. Barbara Jean, we find out, is filled with emotions that consume her all the time. Singing is this marvelous cathartic act for her as it is for many of us; it’s the only thing that keeps her mind focused and her words sane. As it is, at this performance she has the beginnings of a nervous breakdown and has to be pulled off stage. The crowd has paid for Barbara Jean and isn’t sympathetic; Barnett has to volunteer her for a political concert in favor of presidential third-party dynamo Hal Philip Walker. (Walker is, and I hesitate to use this word in the present time where the media has endeavored to make it meaningless, a populist. He believes in abolishing the Electoral College, taxing places of worship, changing the National Anthem so that it means something, eliminating all lawyers from Congress. I mean, I get the appeal. So does a reporter on television, who seems to have Walker on the brain just as much as the nameless youth of Nashville do: “Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me.”)

As the musical portion of the program continues, the sadness in the movie begins to pile up. Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a curvy waitress with aspirations of becoming the next Barbara Jean, is picked up to perform at a big-donor benefit for Walker. She sings so badly that your dog would run away, though, and in the end she is cheered and bullied into stripping for the donors. It is one of the most painful, uncomfortable scenes in a movie I’ve ever watched; out of the many times I’ve watched this movie, I’ve probably only watched this one two or three times. Sometimes I’ll fast forward, or do a quick chore, anything not to watch something that shameful and embarrassing. Delbert is taken with her in the way that he he isn’t taken with his wife, nor his two deaf children, who are charming. (Linnea’s character is based on Louise Fletcher, whose parents were deaf; Altman, in a frankly nasty move, cut her out of the movie after collecting the story. There’s some consolation for Fletcher, though, who took Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest instead and won Best Actress.) Wade makes plans to move to Detroit, but Sueleen, who cares for like a father, refuses to go; Delbert has promised she’ll sing at the Parthenon with Barbara Jean. Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a gentle old man whose niece, Martha (Shelley Duvall), has come to town ostensibly to see her sick aunt, becomes a widower. Martha (going by L.A. Joan and wearing about a million different wild outfits) never does see her aunt; Wynn’s sadness, followed by his determination to get Martha to pay her aunt some final respect, is the most explicitly ’70s aspect of the film. Altman, funnily enough, does his best to move our pity and our feeling to the old generation, not the new one. Linnea finally goes to bed with Tom, who’s been calling her house, but gets dressed in the foreground while we hear Tom calling up the next woman from the other room. She lets the door fall behind her. “No, it’s just the maid,” Tom says. It’s a miracle that this works – part of it must be Tewkesbury again – but the movie manages to repeat this message of despondency or heartbreak over and over again because each character, even if we’ve only seen them for a relatively short amount of time, holds our sympathies. In practice it’s unbelievable.

Nashville is the greatest American movie because it is the most successful at adapting itself to several genres and excelling within each. It is the greatest American movie because it has directon, acting, and technical work at the highest level. And it is the greatest American movie because it ends better than any other American movie.

I’ve written at some length about the final scene of the movie which takes place at the Parthenon. Triplette has done his work well; he has scrounged up just about every singer and performer we’ve seen so far in Nashville to do their thing in front of a giant HAL PHILIP WALKER banner. Barbara Jean goes on first, and the last song she does, “My Idaho Home,” is second only to “Over the Rainbow” on my list of great movie musical songs. It is a little odd in places (I don’t dream I’ll ever hear “chicken medicine” in another song as long as I live), but on the whole it is sheer loveliness:

It’s a song about nostalgia, about family. Her parents are the main characters, and the song reaches its heights when it thinks most about the past. “We were young then,” she sings. “We were together. We could bear floods and fire and bad weather.” The “we” is her family, but it’s not as well. You can’t hear that and not think about the diagnosis of an America that had just crawled out of its most violent, terrible decade since the 1860s. The warmth that Haven Hamilton tries to create in “200 Years,” the good feeling, is superseded immeasurably by what’s in “My Idaho Home.” The song is not optimistic, but it recognizes an anchor that we as a people share. It’s family. It’s place. “I still love Mama and Daddy best, ‘n my Idaho home” Barbara Jean sings, and then ends with a chortled “For Mama and Daddy.” And then she’s shot, presumably killed. The shots ring out at a high, wide angle; we see the reaction of everyone at the Parthenon but never see the event itself. No movie has ever punched me in the teeth that way before, and what gets the molars too is a flag as big as a football field waving from left to right on “We were young then/We were together.” I’ve written in this series before that ambition gets high marks from me; Altman’s flag is incredibly ambitious. If it doesn’t work, it’s a limp, pretentious gesture. If it works – and it does work – it puts the exclamation mark on the greatest movie ever made in this country.

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