If it’s Robert Altman’s trademark to direct large, ensemble-cast films, then Nashville is his flagship production. There are twenty-four significant speaking parts in the film, many of them played by high profile actors. The truly amazing thing, however, is that none of them ever really holds center stage for more than a moment or two; the spotlight consistently returns to the constantly churning collective that is the entirety of the production itself.
The story focuses on the goings-on during a long weekend in the title city of Nashville, Tennessee. There are far too many characters to list and describe here. Suffice it to say that there are two parallel themes running throughout the film: music (primarily country, regrettably) and politics. Nashville was and is the nation’s country music capital and politically Tennessee is – in the film, at least – something of a modern-day Ohio in that it almost always (only once did it not) goes to the winning presidential candidate. Nashville, Tennessee is the ideal arena in which either a musical or political contender would try to make a name for him/herself. But, as the films shows, when every person is trying to stand out as an individual, they each become imperceptible in the swarm.
There are, of course, a few exceptions to the rule. In spite of all the competition, country stars Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) and political spin doctor John Triplette (Michael Murphy) stand out prominently from the crowd, but, like everyone else, they remain resolutely unindividual. Rather than exercising a certain authority due to their prominence, they merely have responsibilities; they are more like slaves than rulers. When Haven introduces Barbara Jean with the preface “Nashville’s own” in the beginning, his words bear a more literal meaning than he realizes. As a performer, her celebrity is far more of a duty than a privelege; she is at the whim of her admiring public and, essentially, she is their property.
Similarly, John Triplette is nowhere near as important as an individual as he is for what he represents. As prominent a physical role he plays in the plot of the movie, his significance to the story derives itself entirely from his connection to Hal Phillip Walker, a mysterious third-party presidential candidate who never appears on screen. Through the use of wit and finesse, Triplette charms his way into the people of Nashville’s good graces, but he’s little more than a salesman; as far as everyone else is concerned, he’s not a real person but rather just the embodiment of Walker’s interests. Like Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean with country music, it is not his personality that defines the character of his political party (the fictional Replacement Party), but rather the political party that defines his actions and behavior.
As such, Triplette, Hamilton, and Barbara Jean (it’s impossible to separate the one name from the other) are little more than placeholders; they have risen to their prominent positions entirely by chance and are sure to be replaced the moment they step down. Even though both politics and popular music are founded upon a certain cult of individual personality, the collective character of the movements in question far supersedes that of the individuals who stand as their figureheads.
If there is any truly significant individual, it is the man who works behind the scenes. The most important characters in this movie, therefore, they are Hal Philip Walker and Robert Altman himself. Neither of them ever appear on screen, but they are both far more important to the story of the film than any of the on-screen characters. However, while Walker uses his power to draw attention to himself – or at least his name – Altman does not. He simply diffuses the viewer’s attention across the entire film, thus preventing any one actor or actress from stealing the show. Distinct from most contemporary films, Nashville – like most of Altman’s other works – is not simply a showcase for a celebrity or two; the actors are merely the paint to Altman’s paintbrush and his style of direction insists – justifiably and successfully – upon the viewer’s recognition that his films are indeed art.
Being no fan of country music, I find it regrettable that Altman had to choose it as the subject matter with which he would strike a blow against the cult of the individual and demonstrate the almost ethereal strength of culture and politics. As the two-and-a-half hour movie began, I steeled myself against the upcoming onslaught of country and I can’t say my appreciation for the genre has grown any since watching the film. Nonetheless, Altman’s presentation of the subject matter was so subtly pervasive that, upon the movie’s end, when the appropriately anonymous character of Albuquerque stands up and sings “It Don’t Worry Me” before the largest audience presented in the film, I actually found myself singing along.