In Robert Altman's New York office, his Sandcastle 5 company headquarters, the phones are running hot, and my call has to be put on hold, while Altman finishes a lengthy conversation with Richard Gere. It's the eve of the world premiere of Dr T and the Women, Altman's latest film, in which Gere stars as a "whip-pussy gyneacologist" as Altman sardonically describes Dr T. (The female cast includes luminaries such as Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn's daughter), Liv Tyler, Tara Reid, to name a few.)
I don't mind holding, I tell his attentive and polite assistant. I can use the time to reminisce - about Nashville, Altman and the whole damn movie thing. Imagine, I say to myself (thankfully in a telephonic silence without hold music), making a movie that comes out a few months after your 50th birthday, which then goes on to make its mark in movie history so effectively that shortly after your 75th birthday it is being re-released (and issued on DVD) at the same time as your latest film has its world premiere at the immensely prestigious Venice Film Festival.
Even today, Nashville is described by America's Premiere magazine (and it should know) as "an epic allegory of American showbusiness and politics"; did he know he was making something that important, I finally ask as Altman gets to my call. "Yes I did, I felt we were doing something that had the potential of being terrific. I had complete artistic freedom in this; I had nobody - nobody - saying you had to do this or do that. And all the actors were enthusiastic to be involved- at least at the beginning, and at the end. In the middle of it, I think many of them would have sold their souls to get out of it," he adds with a chuckle. It was a trying and demanding shoot, closeted in Nashville with lots of creative stretch. Like improvisational dialogue; like writing your own country songs; like the friction of having two dozen characters interact. . . and two dozen actors interact, as well.
"everybody was politically charged - one way or another"
"We had the framework, which was the city of Nashville," says Altman, "and I had the music as the throughline. Then, you've got to understand that at that time everybody was politically charged - one way or another. So when they found out we were free to express these….attitudes, everybody became very creative."
But make no mistake: Nashville is neither polemic nor preachy. The film is a snapshot of 24 characters over a 5-day long weekend in Nashville; from a white gospel singer with two deaf children (Lily Tomlin) to the silent but ubiquitous tricycle man (Jeff Goldblum), and the never seen Presidential hopeful, Hal Philip Walker, who doesn't shut up with his megaphone-delivered political pitch. Although not really a story as such, Nashville does bring all the characters together at the climactic final scene, as their lives intersect in various ways.
If anything, it's fractured, but fractured by virtue of its splintered personalities, its maze of characters whose collective mass adds enormous weight to the film. Even Tricycle Man, who doesn't have a single line of dialogue in the film, manages to impact on the film, possibly by simply being a physical symbol of the times, carrying a sense of freedom and individuality that counterpoints with elements of the film's thrust. Altman himself is nonplussed about how it all gained such dynamics: "All I know is that this film occurred…it took place."
Even before the film was made, it began to have an impact. When Altman outlined his broad vision of the film, "adding a political umbrella and the decision to have the entertainer assassinated," the film's then-designer, Polly Platt, quit. "She was offended…she just hated the idea that we were going to shoot the entertainer…"
"It was a bit like a class reunion, except five of the cast had passed away"
At a screening of the newly struck print at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this year, Altman was moved by the warmth of the response. "It was a bit like a class reunion," he says, except five of the cast had passed away, "and we have all aged. And we all remembered things so differently!" But above all, Altman was touched by the audience's enthusiasm. "There were about a thousand people, and they didn't come there paying their buck and sort of saying, okay, so what's all this about…Most of them had seen it years before, and they came without any cynicism…it was a very moving experience."
As for the film itself, "it's even better than I remember it," he says laughing. As for being his favourite film, Altman begs off: "Films are like your children - and you tend to favour your least successful ones," he says with a laugh. But there's no doubt it was a monumental milestone for him. "Looking back on my 35 to 40 films, if Nashville had not occurred, I don't think any of those that happened since, could have occurred the way they did." So it did change his life. "Oh absolutely. But I think MASH did, as did McCabe and Mrs Miller … but Nashville was certainly a benchmark."
This is an edited version of Andrew L. Urban's article in The Bulletin (on sale 4/10/2000).
Publication date: 5/10/2000