And yet when Haven pleads “Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!” I detect a genuine concern there that I find endearing. You mentioned before that “Keep A’ Goin” could have been the theme song of the Bush administration, and along those lines Haven’s reaction to Barbara Jean’s assassination is his My Pet Goat moment. I know critics of Bush often use that 9/11 episode of inaction to highlight his fraudulence as a leader, and I see that argument, but I’ve always had extreme sympathy for him in that moment. He’s so human there. So overwhelmed. He has heard the news that America has been attacked but can’t comprehend it. Can’t believe it. For Haven it’s much the same. Just as Bush revealed something of his character by just sitting there, assuming someone would figure it out for him, Haven’s plea for song suggests that underneath it all he might really believe some of what he’s selling. Sure, it’s a bit pathetic that singing is the best thing he can suggest, but I detect in his plea a naïve belief that it will help. And so maybe Haven isn’t entirely insincere after all. This film is often extremely critical of its characters, but it operates with the idea that many of them are acting with mostly good intentions most of the time. Do you agree?
EH: I do. Whatever else Haven is, he really does seem to believe in the values and ideas in his songs, even when his own life and the world around him contradict everything he’s saying. If underneath it all there’s some hint of doubt, as I read into that opening scene, his instinctual reaction when things fall apart is to embrace his Nashville values, to encourage everybody to “keep a’ goin” in the face of tragedy. It’s not that different from our post-9/11 leaders urging Americans to “go shopping.” Don’t stop, don’t think, restore the status quo as quickly as possible. In both cases, the intentions are (presumably) good, it’s just a lack of substance that prevents more meaningful leadership. You’re right that Altman is critical of these characters, but for the most part he’s critical of their ignorance and simplistic thinking rather than any malice or ill will. Hypocrisy too, maybe, with Haven as the prime exemplar, as image-conscious and self-centered as you describe. I love that moment when he adjusts the microphone stand down to his height and his eyes again do that shifty, nervous thing that betrays his discomfort with his small physical stature in relation to his huge celebrity stature.
Altman has a lot of fun skewering this shallow celebrity mindset. Connie White (Karen Black) is portrayed as a crass opportunist, Barbara Jean’s rival who’s more or less openly using the more famous singer’s meltdown as a chance to advance her own career. She tries to be warm and playful on stage, but she’s a bitch offstage—contrast her awkwardly playing hide-and-seek with a wooden beam in a cramped bar to her despicably icy behavior with Barnett, who’s at least doing his best to be professional with her and mask his distaste. She seems somehow vacant, an empty vessel full of ambition and little more. Her banter is forced, as though she has trouble maintaining a pleasant façade. When she interacts with a trio of young fans, she can’t do more than vapidly repeat clichés, like telling them they could grow up to be president, as though politics hadn’t already been debunked as an honorable or desirable ambition. It’s fitting, though, to the extent that Altman is drawing parallels between the thirst for political power and the thirst for fame; they are interrelated ambitions, both founded on a belief that talent by itself doesn’t rise to the top, that you also need a good campaign.
Altman further mocks the idolatry of celebrity with cameo appearances by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, playing themselves. The country musicians are almost entirely ignorant of these Hollywood stars, but it hardly matters. They have no idea who Gould is, but can’t wait to meet him once they find out he’s a big actor. By the same token, Connie White thinks Haven is joking when he tells her Julie Christie is a famous actress; she doesn’t look like anything special, Connie says, so how can she be famous? These are people who think that fame conveys some kind of magical aura on a person, that the famous are intrinsically better than everyone else. Opal thinks the same way, as evidenced by that great scene where she’s listening to a song by Haven’s son Bud (Dave Peel), intently focusing on his soft singing until her attention is distracted by the arrival of Gould. Her concentration broken, she becomes nearly ecstatic, forgets about poor non-famous Bud entirely, and rushes over to hop around Gould like a hyperactive puppy. Opal might be British, but this kind of attitude, this obsession with fame and status and appearance, is one that Altman undoubtedly sees as distinctively American.
JB: What’s interesting about Opal is that she thinks of herself as a celebrity peer, even as she’s bowing down to them. She seems to think that by being around these stars she has somehow become one of them. She’s like someone you’d see performing interviews on the red carpet on Oscar night, expecting the stars to be just as excited to see her as she is to see them. She has sex with Tom, who clearly has no interest in her beyond getting himself off, but she treats their sexual encounter as if it’s a natural byproduct of the celebrity circle that she believes they both belong to. Because she has a microphone and because she works for the BBC, she doesn’t realize that she’s just a regular old groupie. Nothing more.
She’s also blind to the fact that Tom is deeply unhappy, and not just in a poetic, ballad-singer-job-requirement sort of way. In fairness, Opal doesn’t see enough of Tom that she should detect his unhappiness. But the point is that she can’t imagine that he could be unhappy, just like Connie can’t believe Julie Christie is famous because she doesn’t have the hairstyle of a beauty pageant contestant. Opal believes that the life of a celebrity must be unceasingly extraordinary, and yet she is blind to that fact the she’s part of the hype machine that has created that myth. In Opal’s mind, Elliott Gould must have a glamorous reason for being in Nashville, for example. This is a woman who tries to make a lot full of school buses exciting (“yellow dragons watching me with their hollow, vacant eyes”), yet she can’t spot her place in the celebrity machine. She can’t comprehend that she’s seeing these celebrities the way she wants to see them, because in enhancing their myths she enhances her own feelings of self-worth.
Nashville repeatedly shows that for all the attention we give to celebrities, and that celebrities give to themselves, the person beyond the hype is lost. Heck, the presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker never even shows himself. He’s faceless. Then there’s Tom, in love with a married woman and unable to let even her know how much. And of course there’s Barbara Jean. By the time she has her performance breakdown, there can be no doubt that her previous hospitalization must have been related to mental or emotional trauma, not a physical ailment. She’s a woman who is cracking, and while her husband certainly doesn’t look out for her best personal interests (more on him later, I hope), her fans don’t either. When she has a breakdown trying to perform, getting lost telling stories about her youth, the audience reacts not with sympathy for their beloved icon but with anger. Her job is to entertain them. That’s their reward for showing up at the airport, pretending to care about her well being when clearly they were just hoping to get close enough to catch a glimpse. Nashville demonstrates how we, the public, want to know everything we can about our celebrity heroes until we learn something that disappoints us. And then we hold them responsible.
EH: What I love about Altman’s approach to this subject is how thoroughly he strips away those illusions about celebrity, how completely he tears down the ideas about glamor and happiness and “extraordinary” lives—and not in a trashy behind-the-scenes tabloid way, either, but with a casual acknowledgement that celebrities are merely human. When Delbert (Ned Beatty) realizes that Elliott Gould is “somebody,” he falls all over himself apologizing for not treating him better; Del hadn’t actually been rude to Gould when he thought he was just some guy, but he hadn’t given him the red carpet treatment either. He’s apologizing for not treating Gould like a king, and Gould mumbles an embarrassed demurral: “I’m just like anybody else.” And that’s the point. That’s the point, also, of Barbara Jean’s breakdown, and of the scene where she sits in a darkened hospital room with Barnett, painting her toenails and getting angry at the radio when Connie comes on. It’s an intimate scene, stripped down, far away from the bustle of the Grand Ole Opry and the constant celebrity buzz that usually surrounds Barbara Jean even in the hospital. Instead, it’s simply a human moment, a moment of disconnection between a depressed wife and a callous husband, a moment of prosaic activity. When she’s not on stage—and often, even when she is—Barbara Jean is just like anybody else. That’s arguably what sets her apart from the other performers in the film, like Haven and Connie, who are constantly at least trying to maintain a persona.
The film is also very sharp in probing how celebrity is created and manufactured, how carefully the celebrity image is honed to present a certain impression. This applies especially to political celebrities. You say Walker is “faceless,” which is true, but his very anonymity allows him to present known faces and known names as surrogates, which is the whole idea behind the concert that Triplette’s putting together. At one point, someone looks at a poster of Connie bedecked with Walker slogans and cracks that Walker “looks just like Connie White!” It’s a funny comment on the way that famous faces become just so much fodder for marketing materials.
JB: It’s also another comment about how disinterested many Americans are about politics—the business end of it, as opposed to the theatrics. Speaking of that dichotomy, I suppose this is as good a time as any to loop back to discuss Barnett, Barbara Jean’s husband and manager. We’ve both been critical of him, but I wanted to spend a moment to argue in his defense. Because while it can safely be said that Barnett puts more effort into his role as manager than his role as husband, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he “only cares about making money off of [Barbara Jean’s] career, even at the expense of her health.” As professionally focused as he is and as cold as he can be to Barbara Jean in terms of what you might expect from a marriage, he’s actually quite protective of her. He’s simply protecting her career more than her sanity.
I know that sounds unforgivable, but what evidence do we have that their marriage is anything more than a business relationship? When do we see Barbara Jean treat Barnett the way we’d expect a wife to treat a husband? Instead, she’s a child, and he’s in the role of the stage-managing parent. It isn’t pretty, and Barnett certainly isn’t to be admired for his callousness, but I think the Barnett-Barbara Jean relationship isn’t there to illustrate his corruption but to point out the corruption of the celebrity system—a game in which even mental illness must be ignored if one hopes to stay on top. If we see the marriage of Barnett and Barbara Jean as a manager-client relationship, his dogged efforts to keep her performing are, in a strange way, acts of caring. His job is to protect her career, and he sees her celebrity as the most important thing worth protecting—for her as much as him. The tragedy, as we’ve mentioned before, is that Barbara Jean has no one close to her who cares about the woman beyond the celebrity.
What’s most distasteful about Barnett, to me, isn’t his condescending treatment of Barbara Jean, which is somewhat offset by his overall concern. It’s the way he’s constantly huffing and puffing about the demands placed on him as manager. Like Opal, he wants to make himself seem as important as the celebrities around him. And like almost everyone in this film, he deems the suffering of others to be an inconvenience for him.
EH: Yes, if there’s a dominant trait shared by many of these characters, it’s definitely selfishness. The film is structured by different stories interlocking, by the characters crossing paths in a single city, but despite that there are very few moments of genuine empathy between two people. Wade (Robert DoQui) comforting and advising Sueleen after her disastrous humiliation as a stripper is perhaps the most prominent example. He’s honest and direct with her, knowing that she’s on a path towards inevitable ruin. He clearly cares about her and doesn’t want to see her get hurt, so he has the courage to tell her a possibly hurtful truth that she nevertheless needs to hear. That kind of human warmth and selflessness is so rare in this film that it’s startling when two characters actually connect beyond a superficial level. For the most part, these people are utterly wrapped up in themselves: even the soldier, one of the more sympathetic characters, is so excited about going to see Barbara Jean sing that he completely overlooks the grief of Mr. Green, with whom he’d formed a bit of companionship previously.
People often sum up the “network narrative” approach to storytelling as being about multiple characters coming together, crossing paths, their separate lives intersecting. The idea is that our lives are connected to the lives of others, that we’re not alone; that’s certainly one point of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, probably the best homage to Altman’s ensemble pieces. But in Nashville, most of these characters never intersect with others in any meaningful way. Even in crowds, they’re always alone. The extent of the interactions between separate stories within the film is thus limited to a walk-on part in the background or a brief moment of superficial conversation. As often as these characters show up in the same places—and within the same frame—they seldom go further than simply existing in the same physical space.
One intersection that initially seems like it’s going to be deeper than that is the relationship between folk singer Tom and gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin), who’s married to Delbert and is raising two deaf children pretty much by herself, since Del seems frankly baffled by the complicated gestures of sign language. Throughout the film, Tom continually hounds Linnea by telephone, suggesting that they get together, and it’s obvious from his persistence that she’s not just another conquest like Opal or even his bandmate Mary (Christina Raines). Then Linnea goes to see him perform and he sings a song seemingly meant just for her—even though most of the other women in the bar assume it’s intended for them. But when Linnea leaves him after the sex, Tom makes a big show of calling another girlfriend before she’s even left, trying to hurt her. Linnea barely flinches; one gets the feeling that she wasn’t there for Tom so much as the excitement of being pursued and desired again.