Looking Back on Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville’ With Its Star Ronee Blakley

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It was once said of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, that the film, “registers not private paranoia or public alarm, but rather a broad complacency,” that it, “transports the divine decadence of Cabaret to American soil. We are offered no crusading hero, no opposition to the conspiratorial menace,” but instead, “we see the lack of affirmative moral action with a benumbed populace.” And as Robert Altman’s swirling Americana tapestry of fame, politics, apathy, and twanging country tunes, Nashville takes place in the frenzied days leading up to a political rally for a Replacement Party candidate and was born of a post-Watergate mentality. It was also the the film that established Altman’s innovative and iconic filmmaking style—with his affinity for vast casts of actors playing against type, casual dialogue and overlapping improvisational style—that would go on to inform the rest of his directorial career.

With an on-set style like no one else, journalist Chris Hodenfield who visited the filming of Nashville, likened Altman’s troupe of actors to “an encounter group meeting during the days of Pompeii.” With over 20 roles in the cast, populated by such essential actors of the day—from Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine to Karen Black and Shelley Duvall to Scott Glenn and Henry Gibson—the film also features its wonderful and essential cameos from stars like Julie Christie and Elliot Gould. Staying at the same motels, viewing dailies together with Altman, reveling in the chaos and immediacy of the time, to hear about the ongoings behind the scenes of picture is almost as thrilling as the onscreen world itself. But when it comes to the heart of Nashville, there was one woman who stands at the center and brings the curtain down, and that is Ronee Blakley.

Previously known for her musical prowess, whether was in electronic music, film scoring, or the folk rock crowd, Blakley was virtually unknown as an actress when she stepped into Nashville in its most pivotal role of Barbara Jean—the princess of Nashville’s country music scene whose beloved status and massive fame end up being her ultimate demise. But when Blakely originally agreed to be a part of Altman’s world, she was hired to work behind the camera, incorporating songs she has previously written into the film and consulting on a number of musical matters. As a Juilliard graduate who had performed at Carnegie Hall, released a studio album, and scored films, this was certainly a world she knew—but when Altman found himself needing a new star for the feature, there was no one more perfect and qualified to play the role than Blakley. Not only was she nominated for an Academy Award in 1976, but Pauline Kael—who famously championed Nashville right out of the gate—wrote of Blakley’s performance:

This is Ronee Blakley’s first movie, and she puts most movie hysteria to shame. She achieves her gifts so simply, I wasn’t surprised when somebody sitting beside me started to cry. Perhaps, for the first time on the screen, one gets the sense of an artist being destroyed by her gifts.

And since, Blakley has worked with everyone from Wim Wenders and Walter Hill to Bob Dylan, using her collaborations to absorb a tremendous amount of knowledge about the entertainment industry, while impressing her myriad skills as an actress and musician upon their creative spheres. In addition, Blakley has also moved behind the camera, stepping into the directorial seat herself, while managing to become an acclaimed poet (with upcoming live shows in Los Angeles). So in celebration of the Criterion Collection’s stunning DVD/ Blu-Ray release of Nashville today, I had the chance to call Blakley last week to chat about a bit of everything—from stuffing money in her dress at Carnegie Hall to arriving on the set of Nashville and the artistic nirvana that defined Robert Altman’s American masterpiece.

It’s been 38 years since Nashville was released. How does it feel to look back on the film now and your experience with it? I was recently speaking with Bruce Weber and he mentioned  that when you make a film and go through all the trials and tribulations with it, you think well okay, it’s on its own, it’s standing on its own two feet but it’s never really over. Is it the same for you now too?
It’s almost completely come alive for me again, having talked about it so much now. And then I just recently watched the documentary over the weekend. Did you see it?

I did!
Yeah, that got my blood up.

Watching the documentary and reading about the making of the film, it just seems like such an amazing world to have been a part of. Can you still feel that sense of excitement and recall those emotions when you look back on that time?
It feels great in many way because it’s such a beautiful piece of work that everyone did—and everyone can say that and know that now from a safe distance, because we’re not right on top of it anymore and not right on top of each other. We were so together then, it was really wonderful. I guess for me now, it seems like the things that we’re talking about are somewhat for posterity because the film has achieved a classic status. So you feel like, well, I sure wish I still looked like that! I thought I did! I thought I was a brunette!

You talk about the cast and crew being like an organism, all a part of this grand collaboration towards something. How was it working so closely intwined with your fellow actors and with Robert Altman?
You know, I was the only one who had produced a soundtrack for a movie before this; I had actually produced the songs for a movie called Welcome Home Solider Boys. I was the only one who had put our an album and toured—which is how Richard Baskin really knew me in the first place, from songs from that record, and that I had met him at my boyfriend’s house when we’d played music together and got along very well. So when I was put on to Nashville originally, I was put on as a writer to write with Susan Anspach, and help her and work with her—she was going to play Barbara Jean.But she ended up not doing it and they had me do it. So I was kind of looked at as the professional music person, and yet I was not seen as an actor even though I had acted all my life, they didn’t know it. I had also made movies; I had a small part in a feature and I had done summer stock. I even belonged to Equity and I had been on stage at Carnegie Hall with moog synthesizers!

Yes, I knew about the Moog synthesizers. Would you actually mind telling me about that a bit, because that sounds amazing.
Synthesizers are ubiquitous today, but at the time there weren’t many—I think there were four. The Beatles had one, Paul Simon had one, Gershon had one, and Robert Moog was lovely guy. He built these things in his studio upstate and he had one assistant, a young college guy named Tony, and they would come down to Gershon’s studio where a synthesizer occupied a whole room. If you imagine the old-fashioned operator chords in and out like patch chords going in and out for every key, for every input there was an output, so the room had to be huge. I remember when he developed the first sequencer, oh that was so exciting! And it was exciting, I don’t mean to make fun of it, it was truly exciting and there were four moogs in Carnegie Hall and several of us vocalists .

I remember improvising in Carnegie Hall, I had five thousand dollars in cash in my underwear to take to David Crosby down in Nassau in the Bahamas because his engine had broken, and it had to be in 50 dollar bills so it wouldn’t be too hard to exchange down there. So then the money stuck out of my stomach because I was thin then and had on a slinky little satin gown, and I could not turn sideways because I had no place to put the money and I didn’t want to lose it. Anyway, so there was that and I was improvising and it was heady and fantastic and beautiful. That was in January of 1970 and that was what I did then.

Then I moved to LA and began my rock and roll or folk rock career and my song writing career—not for electronic music but into folk music and scoring for movies. But when I came to LA at that time after sailing around on David’s boat through the Panama Canal,  then I got a job doing that movie for Fox, Welcome Home. And from there I got my first album deal with Elektra and those songs are what attracted Richard Baskin to me doing Nashville. So I had him choose from my hundred, hundred fifty songs what he thought would work, and then I also contributed and other people did my songs. The girls who did a duet that are so cute in their pinafores, they sang one of my songs and the high school band played my song—so it was just fantastic. But when I watched the documentary, I didn’t get the sense of any of that. I got the sense that they picked me up on the street somewhere [laughs] Like I fell from the sky! [Laughs] Or arrived on a clam shell. Every person can’t have their bio in the documentary, but it sounds like I landed from a space ship. Well now, that was a roundabout answer, wasn’t it?

How did you go about approaching the character of Barbara Jean? You’ve always been a very active and political person in your personal life and Nashville is, of course, heavily imbued with the political landscape of the time, and yet Barbara Jean isn’t a political figure.
I tried to go to the role, I tried to let the role dictate to me what she was. I looked for her in the faces in the people that I saw and looked for her in the clubs and in the performers I saw. I looked for her in my grandparents and my grandparents ancestors who were pioneers coming from Missouri to Kansas and then Idaho. My dad became a civil engineer, but back in the past they were all country people. I tried to go to that and use that, and then I became that as best I could so that I could see that it was working. I maybe went too far with it—I don’t like to talk about it too much, but I kind of adopted that because I feel that if people believe you on the street they’ll believe you on the screen. So you go to your heart and you search and you seek, like any seeker, the one who is searching, and then you hope for inspiration and give it your best.

You speak in the documentary about the first scene you shot, when Barbara Jean faints and how you gave your own suggestion to Altman’s direction. Was it really freeing as a performer to be in such a heavily improvisational and collaboration set?
It was artistic nirvana. Like when I said no to Bob it wasn’t in an argument, it was just talking very close with someone, your heads are close and they’re muttering something to you and it’s taking place in an intimate fashion. It’s an intimate thing and someone whispers in your ear, and it’s all instinct and all nerve endings because it’s all happening right at that moment and it takes on importance that it would not have otherwise. The fact there’s a set and there are cameras and there are people spending all that money while you are diddle daddling about. If Bob had wanted me to do it, he would have said so. But that’s what he did as a director. It’s like being a puppeteer and coercing and cornering and inviting all your darling children to do this performance and make a play and make something out of nothing—which is what happened.

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And I think that’s what makes the film feel so alive and swirling and constantly in motion. It’s thrilling.
It didn’t just feel like that, it wasn’t pretend i that way, it was real and the energy was real—even the extras, even the people that are just Nashville folk, even the man that cleaned my clothes, you see people. The people that go to greet Barbara Jean when she gets off the plane, those are just neighborhood people but they’re all into it and all excited, and it just has that feeling to it. I don’t know how you work up that kind of thing, but it becomes very real. Bob had a lot of good people around him, like Alan Rudolph as an assistant—who is also a fine director—and Tommy Thompson, may he rest in peace, who Bob could not have done it without. Tommy was like having another director on set but who is completely subservient to the director. And then Alan was out shooting second unit. But it was only in the documentary that I learned that Alan shot the Philip Walker Van as it went through town. You know, second unit goes out and shoots stuff but still, the next day he’d be back in writing up call sheets and telling actors it’s time to get to the set. So he’s got these really talented people working under him, and that broads your scope and gives you a wider swathe. You can really cut a wide swathe when you have people like Tommy and Alan as your right hand and left hand taking care of business.

That seems to echo the general sense that everyone had an equal part in contributing to the film. Staying at the same motel and watched dailies together, was there a real sense of intimacy and symbiosis between Altman and the cast?
Yes, we were in two motels. But of course you never knew because everyone had their own private relationship with Bob. It wasn’t like everyone rushed up together and then got together to discuss their parts in a group, that never happened. Whatever happened with Bob was private with that person and Bob. So I can’t speak for the other people because I wouldn’t have been present for that, you see what I mean? But we all gathered together and had parties and dinner and Bob would set up drinks for the dailies, so it was like a a party every night. It really was, a very nice little party, just lovely, really, with just the finest people. Our complex was called the Haystack Apartments, and it was just very real and people’s lives went on and there were personal traumas and dramas and family stuff and breakups, and everything you can imagine went on. And what’s most touching of all ,is those that are gone. It’s hard to take.

You were keeping a journal while filming—was that to help channel your own creative energy and something you always do or was it more in the voice of Barbara Jean?
Deeply for my character, but I’m a writer so I often keep a journal and write, and often times that’s also how y songs will happen. And they’re really invaluable now that I go back to prepare to write a book of my memoirs, and maybe a compilation of anecdotes and some poetry and some photographs and paintings and some new writing, It’s so fantastic to be able to go back to them and find, for example, something that Bob Dylan actually said, rather than to just try and remember. I have a little drawing of Bob at the Speedway and my scene that I wrote for Barbara Jean’s breakdown was in there.

Was it strange and frightening being thrust into the spotlight, having little prior acting experience and playing this character who is at the central of the Nashville universe and the epitome of a star.
Well of course it was daunting and exciting, but I was anxious to do it and I thought I could do it. If I had felt I couldn’t do it, that would have been terrifying and petrifying and walking on oil, but I felt that I could and Altman felt that I could, and everybody seemed to think that I could—nobody seemed to think twice about it. Because I had had experience in music, everyone kind of looked at me as the experienced one, so even though I was a beginner in movies and here I was given an important role, it just seemed to fit in somehow. If I were asked to play something that was further from me, for example, if I were asked to play a girl with an Irish accent who is a juggler, that would be real hard because I don’t know how to juggle and I’d have to study a Irish accent. I studied this accent and got it and practiced it, but you have to feel it. If you don’t close enough, you better get so you do. When you see Sean Penn play the guitar in the movie he did, or when you see people gain and lose massive amounts of weight and learn how to do things they never knew how to do, those kinds of performances are thrilling. It’s got to be real! It’s just got to be real. I was good to people and everyone was good to me, we all helped each other. I gave Gwen Welles singing lessons and I helped Bob find people for the movie, and I’m sure other people did other things. I even bought things for my room, my set, and they were all used.

And being on the set of a film like Nashville is an experience that I’m sure could not be replicated anywhere else. So as your first major role, I’m bet this set the bar pretty high and changed your view of the directorial process.
Yes, because nobody else works like that. So for that to be my first big role in a big movie. and then go on to other movies, and then to think they’re all going to be like that—well they’re not and they weren’t. Each was great in its own way, and some were not as great, but that was the greatest of all.

Now that you’re behind the camera…
I do the same thing! I say go out there and do it! No, no I write and sometimes it’s poetry. I give them stuff ahead of time and ask what they want to hear about such and such a topic and then I’ll write and they’re all reading. And then I like to shoot faux doc stuff and I like to break down the fourth wall sometimes. Sometimes I have to shoot stuff myself, but of course I’d prefer to have a professional camera person, but I do shoot if I have to. And my work with this this recent film that I’m doing is ultra, ultra low budget.

Is that the film starring your daughter?
Yes, but the production value is so low I don’t know what its future will be. I may just release it straight onto the internet. My first feature had enough oomph that it opened at the Venice Film Festival and went to about ten festivals worldwide, but it had a budget probably five, ten times as much. With this I just had to work with a little skeleton crew and work fast. So my movie is a small movie, a tiny movie about a very big thing, a small movie about a big subject.

Having collaborated with so many legendary people in both film and music, as an artist, do you feel like absorb certain traits and learn something new from each person you work with?
I do. I kind of go by osmosis and learn by osmosis—by watching and hearing and looking and feeling, whether or not its Wim Wenders or Andy Warhol or Bob Dylan or Walter Hill or Robert Altman. I just pick up as I go along and the things I love I would like to be able to do. I wish I could make movies like Francis Coppola! I’d like to have 100 million dollars and run around setting up things everywhere. But 100 million still doesn’t guarantee anything, and even if you’d like to be Francis Coppola, it doesn’t mean that you can be! There can only be one Francis. Although Sofia is doing great. She’s so great, with Lost in Translation—that’s such a fine movie.

You also have some live shows coming up, can you tell me a little bit about those?
Oh yes I do! I’ll be at the poetry headquarters here in Los Angeles. It will be my first headline here as a poet. I will be doing some songs, but it will be mostly spoken word, some prose poems and some which you might just call poetry. I have three albums of poetry out. It’s occupied a bit of my time over the past several years and I’ll be having some new stuff in the show.

Will we get a chance to see you in New York at all?
Don’t have anything booked right now, but I’d like to. I’d also like to get going on my book and I’d like to get my movie out. It also had a soundtrack album that I’ll be putting out. It’s called Of One Blood, and then I have a new album called Songs of Love. I’ve got to get cracking on this book! I have thirteen chapters but they need to be better.

And finally, do you have any favorite memories from the set of Nashville—whether it’s a moment with Altman behind the scenes or with the cast while shooting?
Well I guess it would have to be the moment when he came to read what I had written for my breakdown scene. There was no breakdown scene initially, she was just supposed to go down to the Opry and sing. But I asked Bob to come down and I left the makeup chair and stood on the sidewalk with him and I gave it to him to read. I didn’t say it to him, he just read it in my journal. And he said, “Do you know it?” And I said yes and then he said. “We’ll shoot it.” So that was an electric kind of a moment, and that explains who Bob is and explains what kind of director he is and the ability he had to make those kinds of judgements. I mean a lot of people could read something and say, “Oh that’s nice,” or read it and say, “I don’t think it’s very good,” but he could not only read it, take it in, split second judge it, but then he also had the power to make it happen. Then you go out there and you shoot it with a thousand people in the audience and all the cameras—and of course all that stuff was already set to happen—but when you have that kind of synergy between us, we could make some magic. It was very, very exciting.

Nashville

 

Photos Courtesy of The Criterion Collection