How an Alt­man gem lost a se­quel

A years-long ef­fort to re­visit the masterful ‘Nashville’ came up empty. With this di­rec­tor noth­ing was easy.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Neal Gabler

It­was 40 years ago this month that Robert Alt­man’s mas­ter­piece “Nashville” hit screens, but­the ar­rival hadn’t come unan­nounced. In March, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael had taken the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of re­view­ing Alt­man’s three-hour rough cut and pro­claim­ing it an “orgy for movie-lovers,” a “pure emo­tional high,” and, fi­nally, the “fun­ni­est epic vi­sion of America ever to reach the screen.” Kael also pre­dicted that its box of­fice was go­ing to “take off into the strato­sphere.”

She was wrong about that, but four decades later, she has been proved right on ev­ery­thing else. “Nashville” is one of the best movies of the last 40 years and one of the most in­flu­en­tial. It was so in­deli­ble that Alt­man spent years de­vel­op­ing a se­quel— which is a story all its own and one that has never been fully told.

Atthe time of the film’s re­lease, Alt­man was al­ready es­tab­lished as one of the coun­try’s most in­no­va­tive and icon­o­clas­tic film­mak­ers, hav­ing won his rep­u­ta­tion with “MASH,” then tak­ing both plau­dits and brick­bats for his odd­ball para­ble “Brew­ster McCloud,” his re­vi­sion­ist western “McCabe& Mrs. Miller,” and his re­vi­sion­ist noir “The Long Good­bye.” His movies were loose and loopy, me­an­der­ing, jam-packed. But none that pre­ceded it was quite like “Nashville,” an ex­trav­a­ganza telling the in­ter­sect­ing sto­ries over three days of 24 char­ac­ters— among them would-be singers, suc­cess­ful singers, a few house­wives, a BBC re­porter, a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive and a lost soul— and how they all hap­pened to wind up at a rally for an un­seen pres­i­den­tial can­di­date at Nashville’s very own full-scale model of the Parthenon.

The film’s frag­mented sto­ry­telling, its non­stop in­ter­cut­ting among its char­ac­ters, its im­pro­vi­sa­tional ap­proach and pi­o­neer­ing use of sound, in which each ac­tor was sep­a­rately miked and words keep over­lap­ping (“That’s how peo­ple talk,” Alt­man said), broke the rules and showed the

way for oth­ers will­ing to chal­lenge the Hol­ly­wood ver­i­ties.

It be­gan with a Time cover story on coun­try-and western singer Loretta Lynn that co­in­cided with a script on C&W mu­sic that United Artists’ David Picker had given Alt­man in the hope UA would at least get a sound­track al­bum out of it. Alt­man didn’t care for the script, and, ac­cord­ing to his widow, he didn’t much care for coun­try mu­sic ei­ther.

But some­thing about the mu­sic in­trigued him, so he ca­su­ally asked Joan Tewkes­bury, who had writ­ten the script for “Thieves Like Us,” which he was shoot­ing in Mis­sis­sippi at the time, if she would go to Nashville on a kind of factfind­ing trip to see if there might be the ba­sis for a movie there. Tewkes­bury came away star­tled by the town’s sim­i­lar­ity with Los An­ge­les when she­was a young dancer. In both cities, she says now, “Ev­ery­body had a dream.”

She re­turned to Nashville a few months later, stayed a week and a half, and be­gan to shape the movie in her head— a kalei­do­scopic film about dis­parate char­ac­ters in­ter­sect­ing and col­lid­ing in their search to achieve their dream. (She said she­was think­ing of Alt­man’s “MASH” in in­ter­weav­ing char­ac­ters.) Shar­ing her notes with him, she joked that she sup­posed the movie would have to end with a death, which had be­come de rigueur with him, and he said it did.

He also thought it needed a po­lit­i­cal sub­text that would con­nect the 1975 film both to the na­tion’s im­pend­ing bi­cen­ten­nial and to the re­cent Water­gate scan­dal, which he thought re­vealed the dys­func­tion of our democ­racy. So he hired a Mis­sis­sippi op­er­a­tive to or­ga­nize a cam­paign for the imag­i­nary can­di­date, Hal Philip Walker, whose hol­low plat­i­tudes are pumped over a loud­speaker through­out the film. That made for a lot of mov­ing parts. Tewkes­bury says it took six months for her to ab­sorb Nashville, though only two or three weeks to write the script.

Af­ter David Picker at UA dis­missed the script, serendip­ity came. One of the na­tion’s pre­em­i­nent mu­sic man­agers, Jerry Wein­traub, was host­ing a party for John Den­ver in New York, and among the guests he in­vited was Alt­man, whom he ad­mired but had never met. Alt­man pulled Wein­traub aside, and over a shared joint, the di­rec­tor told Wein­traub that he had a script about mu­sic.

Wein­traub was ea­ger to en­ter the film busi­ness, but he re­mem­bers that he “hated” the script, then amended that to say, “Not so much that I hated it, but that I didn’t un­der­stand it. Therewere so many char­ac­ters, so many plots, and so much go­ing on.” Alt­man in­vited him to lunch and pro­ceeded for sev­eral hours to de­scribe the film, scene by scene, vi­su­al­iz­ing ev­ery­thing. Now Wein­traub was hooked.

Alas, the stu­dios weren’t. Wein­traub said that ev­ery­one wanted to work with him, but no stu­dio wanted to work with Alt­man. They told him the di­rec­tor was a “pain in the ass.” But Wein­traub was un­de­terred. He de­cided that he would fi­nance the pic­ture him­self if need be, and he asked a film ex­ec­u­tive friend what he should de­mand from Alt­man in re­turn. “Fi­nal cut,” the friend an­swered. Wein­traub said he de­liv­ered the news to Alt­man at Alt­man’s new Mal­ibu home. “Hewent bal­lis­tic,” Wein­traub re­mem­bers. “I thought hewas go­ing to have a heart at­tack.” But Alt­man ca­pit­u­lated be­cause by now he was des­per­ate tomake the film.

And then, Wein­traub says, he got a tele­phone call from Leonard Gold­en­son of ABC. Gold­en­son was one of the found­ing fa­thers of net­work tele­vi­sion, though he had be­gun his ca­reer own­ing Para­mount The­aters, and told Wein­traub that he missed the film busi­ness. Gold­en­son made Wein­traub an of­fer: ABC would fi­nance “Nashville” in re­turn for four show­ings on­the net­work. It wasn’t much of a risk. The pic­ture cost only slightly more than $2 mil­lion, a bud­get Alt­man could make be­cause the ac­tors and singers agreed to work for prac­ti­cally noth­ing. “Ev­ery ac­tor wants to be a singer, and ev­ery singer wants to be an ac­tor,” is how Alt­man put it.

On to Ten­nessee

And so Alt­man con­vened his mov­able party in Ten­nessee.

“We would have drinks, and we would have food and snacks, and ev­ery­body — the crew right down to the craft ser­vices — ev­ery­body would come to dailies,” re­mem­bers Alt­man’s widow, Kathryn, who was on lo­ca­tion through­out. “It set up a re­ally joy­ful and jovial en­vi­ron­ment.” Wein­traub, vis­it­ing the lo­ca­tion, re­mem­bered it a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. “Ev­ery­body was stoned. And it wor­ried me. There was an aw­ful lot of white pow­der in the rooms. It was go­ing around like candy.” But Wein­traub said he was also im­pressed by Alt­man’s sense of calm in the storm.

Alt­man’s work­ing method had al­ways been spon­ta­neous, which­would lead de­trac­tors to com­plain that his films were hap­haz­ard. But Alt­man wel­comed ac­tors’ con­tri­bu­tions, and ifhe didn’t pre­ar­range ev­ery­thing in the man­ner of a Kubrick or Hitch­cock, he would post-ar­range them once he saw what he had. In this case Tewkes­bury pro­vided the struc­ture, the sit­u­a­tions and most of the words, but ac­tors were en­cour­aged to im­pro­vise.

Bar­bara Bax­ley, play­ing a club owner, wrote a so­lil­o­quy on the Kennedys; Geraldine Chap­lin, play­ing a pre­ten­tious BBC re­porter, wrote her own semi-co­her­ent ob­ser­va­tions; and new­comer Ronee Blakely, play­ing the emo­tion­ally frag­ile C&W queen, Bar­bara Jean, wrote a break­down scene that is one of the most as­ton­ish­ing things in the film. A se­quence in­ter­cut­ting among var­i­ous churches was whipped up and then shot one Sun­day morn­ing when Alt­man sud­denly de­cided that the film needed a re­li­gious in­ter­lude. And Alt­man worked fast. The film was shot in just six weeks.

Nei­ther Wein­traub, Tewkes­bury nor Kathryn Alt­man re­calls feel­ing that

the film felt par­tic­u­larly spe­cial when it was be­ing made. Af­ter­ward was some­thing else. Alt­man knew he might have trou­ble with his dis­trib­u­tor, Para­mount, be­cause of the film’s length, so he set up the screen­ing for Kael, a long­time sup­porter, and Kael’s pre-re­view cre­ated the buzz. When Wein­traub in­sisted that Alt­man con­dense a four-hour, 15minute ver­sion, the di­rec­tor coun­tered that they could show it in two parts. Wein­traub ob­jected, and even­tu­ally Alt­man trimmed it to a brim­ming159 min­utes.

Tewkes­bury ex­pected the film to be po­lar­iz­ing, and she was right. Some crit­ics called it a mess and su­per­fi­cial. Some felt it was con­de­scend­ing, mak­ing fun of its Nashvil­lians. Oth­ers ob­jected to the as­sas­si­na­tion of Bar­bara Jean at the end, call­ing it gra­tu­itous and un­be­liev­able. When John Len­non was as­sas­si­nated, Alt­man felt he was vin­di­cated, and his wife said that he dined out on his pre­science for years.

Most, how­ever, shared Kael’s en­thu­si­asm. It was nom­i­nated for five Os­cars, in­clud­ing best pic­ture and di­rec­tor, and won an Os­car for Keith Carradine’s song “I’m Easy.” Still, af­ter a big start, it grossed less than $10 mil­lion. It was a clas­sic with­out be­ing a hit.

Se­ries or se­quel?

And yet “Nashville,” with its scope, its nar­ra­tive com­plex­ity, and its dead-on un­der­stand­ing of a coun­try be­sot­ted with easy dreams of suc­cess, stuck in the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness. That led to dis­cus­sions be­tween Wein­traub and Alt­man about turn­ing the film into a TV se­ries, be­fore Wein­traub con­cluded that they were movie peo­ple, not TV peo­ple, and that a film se­quel was a more vi­able path.

By this time, nearly a decade had passed since the movie’s re­lease, and Wein­traub ad­mits, “I knew hewas go­ing tomake four or five pic­tures that went south. Iwanted towait un­til he had some fail­ure, so I could con­trol him a bit.” Nowhe could. So Wein­traub and Alt­man sketched out a loose story line in which Lily Tom­lin’s char­ac­ter, Lin­nea, de­cides to run for gov­er­nor of Ten­nessee, and ap­proached Tom­lin, who ex­pressed in­ter­est.

Nat­u­rally, Alt­man brought the idea to Tewkes­bury, telling her that “we would take these char­ac­ters and show how aw­ful ev­ery­thing had turned out.” When she didn’t show much en­thu­si­asm he brought it to another col­lab­o­ra­tor, Robert Harders. Like Tewkes­bury, who met Alt­man through the­ater con­nec­tions, Harders came to Alt­man from a small Santa Mon­ica the­ater where Harders had staged a play ti­tled “The Last Tape and Tes­ta­ment of Richard M. Nixon,” star­ring Philip Baker Hall. One night Alt­man came back­stage, praised the pro­duc­tion, and later told Harders that he wanted to turn it into a film, which he did.

Alt­man asked him to work on a screen­play that never got pro­duced, then another, an adap­ta­tion of Hem­ing­way’s “Across the River and Into the Trees,” then on an aborted Burt Reynolds project. Harders says he re­mem­bers the mo­ment Alt­man brought up the “Nashville” se­quel. Harders and his wife were din­ing with the Alt­mans at their Mal­ibu house when Alt­man men­tioned it “al­most as if he were say­ing, ‘Could you pass the pota­toes?’”

Harders was “dumb­founded. That be­gan what turned out to be an odyssey. As with Tewkes­bury, Alt­man gave Harders vir­tu­ally no guid­ance, only a brief out­line of what might have hap­pened to the char­ac­ters in the decade since the first film. Mean­while, Harders said he was look­ing for a “big idea” around which the script would co­a­lesce.

He worked first in Paris, where Alt­man was in pre­pro­duc­tion for the com­edy “Be­yond Ther­apy,” then re­turned to L.A. and took a trip to Nashville, where the thing that im­pressed him most was not the dreami­ness of the place but the mu­se­ums ded­i­cated to the singers. The memo­ri­al­iza­tion of these en­ter­tain­ers was, he thought, a phony re­vi­sion­ism — a way of reimag­in­ing the past to fit our de­sires. In this, he says he was in­flu­enced by Christo­pher Lasch’s book, “The Cul­ture of Nar­cis­sism.” Nashville, he felt, had be­come a cap­i­tal of nar­cis­sism.

Ap­par­ently Alt­man warmed to this idea and to Harders’ other ex­trap­o­la­tions: not only Lin­nea as a gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date but her ex-hus­band (Ned Beatty) as the lo­cal D.A. who has mar­ried the tonedeaf singer Sueleen (Gwen Welles); C&W icon Haven Hamil­ton (Henry Gib­son) as a ca­ble TV mogul; and folk singer Tom (Carradine) as hus­band to the flighty L.A. Joan (Shel­ley Duvall). Like the first “Nashville,” this one also ended with an on­stage death: that of the el­derly woman who had saved Bar­bara Jean from a fire and whose non­de­script son would later kill the singer. Even­tu­ally, Harders even fig­ured out howto res­ur­rect Bar­bara Jean her­self: in the per­son of a Bar­bara Jean fe­male im­per­son­ator.

Harders says he worked full time for two years on the script and wrote two dozen drafts. (They are in the Robert Alt­man Pa­pers at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan.) By the end, he had found his “big idea.” If the orig­i­nal Nashville was about our thrall to dreams and our sub­mer­sion into our il­lu­sions—“You may say that I ain’t free,” goes the fi­nal song, “but it don’t worry me” — the se­quel would be about how those dreams get cor­rupted by money and fame and pride so that they no longer in­ure us. Alt­man had said hewanted a darker film than the first one. Harders gave it to him. No char­ac­ter in the se­quel sur­vives un­scathed.

And that was the shoal on which the project was breached. Wein­traub felt it was too dark and says Alt­man came to feel the same way. More­over, Harders re­calls that Wein­traub, through an as­so­ci­ate, de­manded that the script blue­print ex­actly what was go­ing to be shot—“It’s gotta be on the page to be on the stage” — even though Alt­man had never worked that way. And to fur­ther com­pli­cate mat­ters, Tom­lin was said to be con­cerned about car­ry­ing the pic­ture rather than be­ing just one of the en­sem­ble.

There never was a mo­ment, says Harders, when the plug was pulled. He just re­mem­bers get­ting a call from his agent that he wasn’t go­ing to­get paid any­more.

“I don’t think they had any faith in Bob,” is how he now an­a­lyzes it. Later Alt­man would ask him to write “Short Cuts” (he didn’t), and the two re­mained friends. He still sees Kathryn Alt­man. There was a talk of a “Nashville” Broad­way mu­si­cal, but that didn’t go any­where. Harders even­tu­ally left L.A. with his artist-wife for up­state New York to start a non­profit and work in the­ater. And that­was that.

But40 years later, “Nashville” re­mains— a trib­ute to Tewkes­bury, Alt­man and a bril­liant cast, and to the con­flu­ence of Water­gate, the Amer­i­can bi­cen­ten­nial, and our un­shak­able pen­chant for plow­ing ahead, pro­tected by our il­lu­sions. It is a film for the ages.

‘He went bal­lis­tic. I thought he was go­ing to have a heart at­tack.’

— Jerry Wein­traub,

‘Nashville’ pro­ducer

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Im­ages

DI­REC­TOR Robert Alt­man away from the set of “Nashville” in 1975.

KATHRYN ALT­MAN and one­time “Nashville” se­quel writer Robert Harders pore over vin­tage pho­tos.

KEITH CARRADINE (who would win an Os­car for his song “I’m Easy”) and Shel­ley Duvall in “Nashville.”

Para­mount Pic­tures

LILY TOM­LIN as Lin­nea with Robert Do­quit asWade in “Nashville.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

FI­NANCIER Jerry Wein­traub was ea­ger to try the movie busi­ness.

Michael Ochs Archives

SCREEN­WRITER Joan Tewkes­bury ex­pected the film to be po­lar­iz­ing.

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