I’ve always been reluctant to list my favorite films in order of preference. There are so many styles and genres of films that I love, why force an apples-and-oranges comparison? While I could easily draw up up a list of 100 movies that have had an impact on me, it would be almost impossible to organize them in some kind of ascending order. Except for one. My favorite film of all-time is Robert Altman’s Nashville.
I remember walking into Chicago’s Esquire Theatre in June 1975 to see the film during its opening weekend. It would be the first of dozens of screenings (including two cast reunions, one at the Motion Picture Academy in 2000 and one last year at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood) as well as countless viewings on video and DVD.
Altman had already made films using large ensembles and overlapping dialogue (most famously in M*A*S*H five years earlier), but he perfected this style in Nashville as he showed the interweaving stories of 24 characters over the course of five days in the country music capital. The casting of Nashville was inspired. Altman chose incredible actors such as Henry Gibson, Barbara Baxley, Barbara Harris, Geraldine Chaplin, Keenan Wynn, Karen Black, and Lily Tomlin. Each of them brought their own skills and back stories to the roles, making for one of the richest ensembles in movie history. Also in the cast were talented Altman veterans Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Timothy Brown, and Gwen Welles; stalwarts like Michael Murphy, Allen Garfield, and Bert Remsen; and newcomers Cristina Raines, Scott Glenn, and 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum.
Nashville was not really about the country music industry. Nashville was about America — it was about us. And the linchpin of the entire film was Ronee Blakley’s magnificent performance as Barbara Jean.
Actress Susan Anspach was originally cast as the emotionally fragile superstar. Rumors about why she dropped out of the film ranged from her demanding more money than the rest of the cast (Altman used a two-tiered salary range that was paltry even by 1970s standards) to the fact that she just couldn’t cut it vocally. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful because Anspach’s departure opened the door for Ronee Blakley’s luminous portrayal which is the heart and soul of the film.
At the time, Blakley was a young up-and-coming singer-songwriter who happened to be friends with the film’s musical director, Richard Baskin, and had opened up her entire music catalogue for him to use in the film. Blakley had been spending a lot of time with Baskin and Robert Altman during the film’s pre-production, helping out with the music choices, and left to go on the road with Hoyt Axton. Then, out of the blue, Blakley got the unbelievable call that they wanted her to play Barbara Jean. Details of her own life were written into the script, and Blakley wrote all of her own dialogue including her two bravura breakdown scenes. It’s an extraordinary performance that bowled over the critics, including The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael:
“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.”
After getting nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film (along with Lily Tomlin), Blakley went on to other film and TV projects (she was, for example, the mother in the original Nightmare on Elm Street). Blakley toured with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and appeared as Dylan’s wife in Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara. She directed an autobiographical documentary in 1985 called I Played it for You that touched on her six-year marriage to German director Wim Wenders but her screen and live performances became increasingly rare. For all the people I’ve interviewed over the years, whenever anyone asked me if there was one person that I’d love to talk to, my answer was always the same: Ronee Blakley. So it was an absolute thrill to get to spend time with her on the phone this week to talk about Nashville on its 45th anniversary.
Danny Miller: Ronee, I can’t even express what it means to me to be talking to you. In addition to your acting, I have been listening to your music nonstop since I was 15 years old. I can’t even tell you how often I’ve listened to your records during this crazy pandemic. Your beautiful music has helped to get me through this and many other difficult times.
Ronee Blakley: Oh, thank you, Danny, that’s so kind of you to say. And, you know, I have a new album that will be out soon.
You do? How exciting!
Yes. It’s called Atom Bomb Baby. And the single from it is Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” which I think is really appropriate for what’s happening right now in this country. I’m now in the final stages of figuring out how it’s going to be released and distributed.
I can’t wait! I know you’ve talked about Nashville so much over the years, I hope you don’t mind going back there again to honor this week’s 45th anniversary of the film’s release.
Not at all, I never get tired it. It’s such a wonderful film!
If I had to pick one film to put in a time capsule to represent this country, for all its good qualities and bad including its political machinations and obsession with celebrity, it would be Nashville. But I find as I’ve watched it over the years, some of my perceptions of the film have evolved, including my understanding of Barbara Jean and her relationship with her husband Barnett —
May he rest in peace. You know that the wonderful Allen Garfield died of Covid two months ago, right?
Yes, so sad. I saw the moving post you wrote about him on your Facebook page.
It really took me down, I’m not over it. I’ll never be over it.
Let’s start there. How was it working with Garfield on set?
It was fantastic. We had a true friendship, a true meeting of the minds and hearts. It went very deep.
As I was saying, when I was young, I’d always think, “Poor Barbara Jean — this man is totally controlling every aspect of her life and is such a domineering monster.” That started to shift as I got older. While there is certainly a dysfunctional aspect to their relationship, I started to see that in some ways it was the opposite — it was Barnett who was wholly dependent on Barbara Jean. I can’t even imagine how he would have been able to survive her death.
Now I’m crying. Forgive me, Danny, this is the first time I’ve talked about Allen since his death. I feel very emotional about him. Yes, I think these kinds of relationships are very interdependent, and not necessarily healthy. I understand the aspects of it that affected you when you first saw the movie — with Barbara Jean almost being a prisoner and knuckling under to his rather aggressive managerial style. On the other hand, he really did protect her, he really did love her. He did take care of her. In my opinion, he made her career possible because on her own she most likely would have been marginalized because of her delicate and fragile mental state. I spent a lot of time back then thinking about their relationship and developing the character. I wrote all of Barbara Jean’s part except for that one scene in the hospital. And even there, Bob gave us so much freedom.
Altman really seemed like such a unique director in terms of the amount of collaboration he encouraged with his actors.
Absolutely. Bob only had two rules for working with him. He used to say, “I don’t care what you do the night before but don’t ever show up drunk.” And the other rule was to never contradict him on the set which I may have done once or twice! But he was definitely open to all of our ideas which was a miracle.
Did that spoil you for acting experiences that came later?
Oh, yes, I rarely had that kind of freedom with the other directors I worked with, except for Bob Dylan and Wim Wenders who both encouraged me to improvise and write. On all of the other projects I worked on, if I showed up with any dialogue that I’d written, they’d look at me like I was crazy.
What an amazing gift to have that be your first big experience in a movie. I know that you were initially involved with the film because they were going to use a bunch of your songs. When they first offered you the role of Barbara Jean, were you floored?
Well, yes, because Susan Anspach was cast in the role! I was already hanging out with her. She was a wonderful woman and we even went into the studio with Richard Baskin to work on some of the songs.
Did she record any of your songs?
She was going to but I can’t remember if she actually did. Isn’t that odd? There are so many things that I remember like they happened yesterday while other things have just receded into the past.
So, when she left the film and they offered you that all-important role, did you have any reservations about taking the job?
No, I didn’t, I was thrilled. By that point, I was out on the road with Hoyt Axton since Bob Altman wasn’t paying me for my help during pre-production. I had really enjoyed hanging out with them but I had to work for a living.
Oh, you mean he paid you for your songs but not for any of the other consulting work you had been doing on the film?
No, Danny, I did not get paid for my songs!
What?! Why not?
Well, you’d have to ask Bob about that. (Laughs.) I mean, nothing had been decided yet. As I said, Richard Baskin was the music director so it was up to him to select which songs of mine he wanted to use. I made all my songs available to him and I even went in the recording studio and laid them down so they could choose. But no, I was not offered money. So I took the job with Hoyt and I was on the road, but I was still talking to Baskin over the phone, we were still in touch. And then one day, when I was in Nashville of all places with Hoyt, Richard called and said, “We’re thinking of casting you in the movie as Barbara Jean.”
Was that just wild to hear?
It was pretty exciting. We were about to appear with Hoyt on the Opry, the old one. I was staying in the bridal suite at Anchor Motel in Nashville — isn’t it funny the things you remember? And I immediately started calling around to several big country stars to see if I could go study any of them. I wanted to get a feel for what they were like.
Oh, wow. Who did you meet?
I got to spent time with Dolly at the Opry. I hung out with her and she sang “Jolene” for me which was wonderful. I called Lynn Anderson’s company and Loretta Lynn’s who put me in touch with her manager, David Skepner. I told him who I was and said I was on the road with Hoyt and that I was up for a role in a movie about country music stars and could I come and spend some time with Loretta. He said, “Well, she’s going to be at this hog roast tonight, why don’t you come on down?”
Whoa, there’s an offer you can’t refuse!
Right? I said I would and he said they’d send a car for me which I thought was very nice. But then at some point, David said, “What is the Palomino ever going to do without you?” And I said, “Pardon me?” And he said, “Isn’t this Bonnie Blakely, the gal who books the Palomino?” I said, “No, this is RONEE Blakley! I’m up for a role in a movie!” And he said, “Well, I guess you can come anyway!”
Ha! And didn’t you end up getting some other musicians in Nashville into the film?
Yes, I took Bob to meet Vassar Clements who ended up appearing in the movie.
His scene with Connie White is such a great moment.
I also took Bob to meet Ry Cooder but he just had no interest in being in the film. And I took them all to the Pickin’ Parlor which became a location.
Right, Lady Pearl’s (Barbara Baxley) place! Did you have a say which characters sang your songs?
I think that was all Richard. I don’t think I had anything to do with Tommy Brown singing “Bluebird,” for example.
I love hearing your songs sung by major characters, and even minor ones like when those two young women who called themselves the Smokey Mountain Laurels sang your great song, “Down to the River.”
Oh my goodness, you really do know all the little details! How many times have you seen the movie?
I mean, at least a few dozen times. And I always see new things.
You may have seen it more times than I have!
What kind of framework for the character of Barbara Jean were you given upfront? How much did you have to delve into her psyche and figure out what was making her tick?
Oh, I really delved in. As I said, there was very little dialogue for her in the script. In her first scene, getting off of the plane at Nashville Airport, Barbara Jean faints from exhaustion. I remember for the Opryland scene, it just said in the script that she faints again. I told Bob that I didn’t think that this took the character anywhere. It needed to be like a musical phrase, like a symphony where it starts with one theme and then it builds and then you have theme two, and then it builds and then there’s a development section, you know, and then it comes back. You don’t just repeat and repeat, you take it somewhere.
And thankfully Altman was completely open to you crafting how that would play out with Barbara Jean?
Yes. I love that scene at Opryland. It has a rhythm — a beginning, middle, and end, even though you may not see it. If I put it in terms of sound, a certain section of music might be soft, but then it’ll get a little louder. It doesn’t remain static and it builds. I wanted to convey the essence of Barbara Jean and her instability. I’ve always felt that there’s a fine line between sanity and insanity and I thought of Barbara Jean as someone who was walking that fence. She needed to try to express herself, she desperately needed her audience to see her more deeply.
That’s so interesting to me that you put it in musical terms because I always thought that Opryland scene had such a strong rhythm and tension. Even when I was watching the film last year at the TCM Festival for the umpteenth time, I remember sitting on the edge of my seat and pulling for her. “Come on, Barbara Jean, you can do it. You can get over that hump!”
I had written all of the dialogue for that scene in my journal. I remember that morning when I was in makeup, I asked Bob to come down to the trailer to talk to me. Now he was obviously very busy that morning and didn’t really want to be summoned by an actress to the makeup room, but he came and I read what I had written for the scene. He asked me, “Do you know it?” I said I did, and he said, “Okay, let’s shoot it.” And so we did. But when we were on set, it was Bob who had the great idea of breaking it up into a couple of parts. All that stopping and starting, that was Altman.
I think one of the things that makes your performance so incredible is that there’s not a trace of parody. As you know, country music stars are pretty easy to make fun of, but I didn’t feel that for one second with Barbra Jean.
Danny, thank you for saying that. You know, I’ve been at a few screenings over the years where people laugh during some of Barbara Jean’s scenes. That always bothers me, to be honest, although I guess it shouldn’t. I never wanted people to see Barbara Jean as comical in that way.
Oh, that would bother me, too. I mean, someone like Karen Black’s character, Connie White, I can see that happening, but that’s because Karen Black was in on the joke. With people like Barbara Jean and Linnea (Lily Tomlin) and Sueleen (Gwen Welles), there was such an innocence, such a vulnerability to their characters.
Oh, those two are so awesome in the film, don’t you think?
Yes, the best. I love some of those small moments of Barbara Jean’s like when she’s singing in the chapel or talking to Keenan Wynn’s character or to Timothy Brown’s character in her hospital room. You can see why Allen Garfield’s character was so necessary in her life because she just seemed so very unprotected from the world.
Absolutely. She couldn’t have survived without him. By the way, did you know that Timothy Brown died on the very same day as Allen Garfield in April?
No, I didn’t!
Yes, it’s so awful. Two of my cultural touchstones gone on the same day.
It’s sad how many of the 24 actors are gone now. It must have been terribly exciting when you got nominated for the Oscar that year along with Lily.
It was. But a little bittersweet as well. Bob told me that they were going to put up “My Idaho Home” for Best Song. I traveled that whole year publicizing Nashville at different film festivals and openings. But then Bob and I had a falling out that I don’t really want to go into, and he changed his mind about submitting “My Idaho Home.”
Oh, what a shame! That’s such a great song. It should have won!
Well, it’s okay, Keith’s song is fantastic, I was really happy that it won. And Keith was exquisite in the film, so gorgeous and perfect. I think “I’m Easy” is a great, great song but I’m just telling you what happened.
The tension leading up to Barbara Jean’s assassination at the end of the film is so well constructed. Again, I’m on the edge of my seat every time even though I know what’s coming.
My biggest concern as an actor during that scene was making sure it was believable. I remember consulting with my dad who knew about guns how far back my body would fly if I was hit at that range.
Oh God, I worried for your safety when I saw that scene!
Well, I actually was injured. After Barbara Jean was shot and I threw myself backwards, my left arm went under my body and everyone jumped on top of me. I remember that Bob regretted ever afterwards that he didn’t shoot that scene in close-up. It’s still effective but he told me later that he could never forgive himself for that. What happened was that it had started to rain which caused all sorts of panic about losing the crowd, so he kept going and we never got the close-up.
In many ways, that scene seemed so prescient about what we were about to see so much more of in this country. When I see it now, I can’t help but think about what it says about violence and fame and celebrity.
I’ve often felt distress about that. I know it affected some friends of mine very deeply. Joan Baez told me that she felt sick after seeing it. And then a few years later, when John Lennon was shot, The New York Times compared it to Nashville. It’s weird because it’s not like there aren’t a lot of murders in movies, they’re all over the place, but for whatever reason the one in Nashville was pretty influential.
The death of innocence, and portent of certain attitudes to come. And the utter senselessness of it all.
Right. People used to always ask me, “Why did he shoot you?” And I would say, “How should I know? I’m dead!”
I remember talking to you briefly years ago at the premiere of Henry Jaglom’s Someone to Love which you were in. At that time, Altman had just announced a sequel to Nashville that you told me you were going to be in. It never happened, unfortunately, but how was that going to work?
Well, Bob told me that Scott Glenn’s character was going to be a Senator and I was going to be his wife.
Oh, really? That makes so much sense. We know how obsessed Glenn’s character was with Barbara Jean, so it’s interesting that he would find someone to marry who looks like her!
Oh, aren’t you smart! I never actually thought of it that way.
I also remember hearing that Lily Tomlin’s character, Linnea, was going to be running for governor in the film. Ugh, I wish it had been made before Altman died in 2006.
You know, now that I think about it, I think that I was supposed to actually be playing Barbara Jean — that she didn’t actually die that day.
Oh wow, you’re kidding!
Yes, at least that’s what we talked about. But by then it was so clear in everyone’s head that she had been assassinated, so I’m not sure it would have worked.
I also remember back in the day hearing about a longer three-hour edit that was going to be on TV.
Yes, that would have included a scene I did that was cut from the film, a long scene I wrote where Barbara Jean tells a nurse about a dream she had in great detail. A friend of mine saw that and said that this scene caused the whole movie to make sense to him. It’s a shame we’ll never see it now, I don’t know if it exists anywhere.
I know you’re nothing like Barbara Jean in real life, but I wonder if you could relate to some of the things she went through after the film came out and you suddenly shot to international stardom. Did you feel any of the vulnerability and exposure that Barbara Jean must have felt?
Oh, yes, I think most actors probably do, and most musicians, too. We’re all human. I remember this great quote from Edward G. Robinson that I saw on Turner Classic Movies the other day in this wonderful tribute that Chazz Palminteri did for him. Robinson said, “Every one of us bears within him the possibility of all passions, all destinies of life, in all its manifold forms. Nothing human is foreign to us.”
Speaking of classic movies, I love Barbara Jean’s mentions of The Wizard of Oz, both in her dialogue and in her lyrics.
That was the first movie I ever saw and I had to be carried out when the witch came on. It was a very influential movie for me. I’m a huge classic movie fan but I didn’t have access to many classic movies when I was growing up in Oregon and Idaho.
When did you start watching them?
I saw a lot when I was at Julliard in New York for graduate school. I remember going to the museum to see all of Garbo’s movies. I loved them.
Do you watch TCM a lot now?
Oh yes, all the time. I would say I watch it every day — especially now.
Go to Ronee Blakley’s website for more information about her upcoming album, Atom Bomb Baby, and to purchase copies of her records, films, and paintings.
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.