Two nights ago I watched the Criterion Bluray of Robert Altman‘s Nashville (’75). And guess what? It doesn’t hold up. It’s earnestly dislikable. I wanted to shut it off after the first half-hour. It’s a typical Altmanesque grab-bag of this and that, but it’s mainly a social criticism piece about Middle-American politics, patriotism, pettiness and celebrity. The specific focus is the banal eccentricities and pretensions of the country-music industry, but for the most part the film is snide and misanthropic. Sorry, but I’m removing it from my Altman pantheon. I loved it in ’75 but I’m pretty sure I’ll never watch Nashville again. It’s failed the test of time.
In basic construction terms Nashville is about a troupe of eccentric, improvising actor-hipsters leaning on their default Left Coast impressions of Nashville’s sophisticated-hick culture and dispensing variations on a single dismissive theme: “These people are small and petty and lame and delusional.”
The late Gwen Welles plays a short-order waitress and a completely untalented would-be singer. I’ve known a few mediocre performers in my life (actors, singers…I was one myself when I tried to be a drummer) and the common characteristic is that they’re somewhat talented but not talented enough. But Welles’ bad singing is a patronizing “bit” — an actress pretending to be God-awful. In actuality a singer with a voice this tone-deaf wouldn’t dream of trying to become a performer. But try she does.
Welles’ big scene arrives when she tries singing at a club and fails so miserably that the crowd hurls cruel taunts and insults. Welles is so deflated by the response that she goes numb. Her eyes space out and she starts disrobing because some drunken asshole has yelled “show us yer tits!” or something in that vein. She ends up naked and humiliated, but I, sitting in my living room 38 years later, was appalled. I felt sick. I haven’t watched a scene this ugly in a long, long time.