Nashville doesn't have Robert Altman to kick around anymore.
The filmmaker -- legendary in Hollywood and once reviled in Nashville -- died last night in Los Angeles at 81.
In 1974, Altman and a large entourage came to town to shoot Nashville, a movie meant to be less about the city than it was about the state of American politics and culture in the post-Watergate era. The director had attained recent fame for M*A*S*H, his 1970 Korean War blockbuster that spawned one of the most successful television series in history. The star power of his cast, including Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty and Keith Carradine, left the city abuzz. Hundreds of locals took part in the production as extras for scenes filmed at locations such as Centennial Park.
Around the same time, Burt Reynolds was in town to film W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and it seemed to many locals that little old Nashville was on the verge of celluloid validation as a place worth paying attention to.
And then Altman's flick came out. It depicted the Music City as Bumpkin Central Station, a sort of Peyton Place-meets-Appalachia. When a character modeled on Loretta Lynn is assassinated, for instance, the crowd of locals who have witnessed the shooting breaks into insipid song. "I tell you what, if it had been Loretta Lynn shot we would not have been nodding and clapping," wrote humorist Roy Blount Jr., who had been an extra in that crowd, in an essay for the 2001 book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait. "We would have been weeping and looking to kill the sumbitch that shot her. But since it was a movie, we were smiling and playing along with whatever the gag was."
A December 1975 issue of the middlebrow newspaper insert Family Weekly captured the tenor of the city's reaction to the movie that all the "big film critics" were cooing about. By presenting a portrait of "self-indulgence, confusion, hypocrisy, insensitivity, violence and greed," Altman had raised plenty of hackles on Music Row (where such attributes are surely never to be found). Lynn Anderson announced that she was "personally affronted." Minnie Pearl called the film’s music "terrible." Webb Pierce said if Altman ever came back to town, he would "get hanged."
If the music industry itself hated the film, then the business community and high society of Nashville were perhaps even more appalled. West Nashville suburbanites in those days commonly referred to the "music people" as a population segment to be tolerated from a distance, at best. There was, and arguably still is, a sense among local patricians that the nationwide success of locally produced TV show "Hee-Haw" did lasting harm to the city's image with its caricature of a barefoot-and-pregnant society. Altman was just rubbing salt in that wound.
Nashville went on to be nominated for five Oscars, winning one: Best music. Altman himself received an honorary Oscar for his life's work earlier this year. And the United States National Film Registry has selected two of his films for preservation: M*A*S*H and Nashville.