AUGUST 1975 ...ALTMAN’S MOVIE NASHVILLE OPENS IN NASHVILLE
It was the biggest night in the history of Nashville’s Martin 100 Oaks Theatre. Opened in 1966 at 719 Thompson Lane, it was famous for its use of rocking chairs – though one former manager blamed his early departure from the job on the fact that he couldn’t stand them falling to bits any longer. But that Friday evening, all 741 seats were filled as the citizens of Music City settled down to the gala premiere of Robert Altman’s country music epic Nashville. A sprawling music biz and political satire, the film had opened at two New York theatres in June to largely glowing reviews. Hollywood Reporter raved: “Never before has an American movie had quite the texture, the density of both visuals and of music. It’s the most epochal event since Citizen Kane.” The New York Times agreed: “Robert Altman’s Nashville is the movie sensation that all other American movies this year will be measured against. It’s a film that a lot of other directors will wish they’d had the brilliance to make.” While the movie, which had 24 major roles and 27 songs, was making a media impact, in Tennessee there were rumblings, and suspicions that maybe Altman’s view of country wasn’t favourable to Opryland. Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean character was reputed to be based on Loretta Lynn, while Henry Gibson’s portrayal of Haven Hamilton did no favours to luminaries like Roy Acuff and Porter Wagoner. It was noted that Merle Kilgore, the co-writer of Ring Of Fire and best man at Johnny Cash and June Carter’s wedding, was the only country musician of note listed in the main cast. Even so, many Nashville notables arrived at the Martin that hot Friday night keen to see how they’d been portrayed by Hollywood. Outside the theatre 4,000 people assembled alongside the red carpet, as major-
“IT’S THE MOST EPOCHAL EVENT SINCE CITIZEN KANE.” Hollywood Reporter
ettes the Tennessee Twirlers entertained and mayor-elect Richard Fulton and Sheriff Fate Thomas stood ready to welcome Blakley, Gibson and co-stars Keith Carradine and Dave Peel, though director Altman was absent, working on his next picture. As limos pulled up, Music City’s stars waved at the fans. “Hey there’s Brenda Lee,” someone yelled, as the diminutive star bemusedly descended from one vehicle. The arrival of such as Webb Pierce, Roy Acuff, Ronnie Milsap, Billie Jo Spears, Jeanne Pruett, Del Wood, Jody Miller and Minnie Pearl kept fans cheering, while the Silver Spurs band,
perched on a flatbed track, played real country tunes – a reminder, perhaps, that the songs the film audience were about to hear were strictly non-Nashville and penned by thespian upstarts. At 7.15pm, when the Rutherford County Square Dancers took their bows and 21-year-old local TV reporter Oprah Winfrey completed her interviews, the hubbub died down and the show began. Not that Roy Acuff was there to see if Gibson’s character was really like him. Acuff had left the building. In the theatre, everyone cheered when the film’s title, NASHVILLE, was displayed on screen. But the mood changed as Blakley, in a mainly improvised scene, brilliantly portrayed Barbara Jean as a doomed neurotic, a performance that would win her an Oscar nomination. There were laughs, but gradually the smiles slid from those watching faces in the next two hours and 39 minutes. Music City’s reaction was predictable. Brenda Lee had a word to describe the movie but said her husband pleaded with her not to use it. “The only way it will be a big movie is for it to play a long time in the North – that’s what the people up there think we look like anyway,” she eventually opined. Producer Billy Sherrill was similarly unimpressed, claiming his favourite moments came “when they shot that miserable excuse for a country singer”. And when a reporter caught up with Loretta Lynn, who had declined to attend the screening, she reflected, “I’d rather go see Bambi.” Acclaimed by critics, the film did quite well at the box office and earned six Oscar nominations. On the big night, however, only one award went to Altman’s masterpiece – the Best Original Song, which the song’s writer and performer Keith Carradine accepted from Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson. At which point Music City became Gnashville.