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David Ehrlich

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David is the Senior Editor of Film.com. His interests include the New York Rangers, movies about movies, and regretting this personal bio.

The Queen of ‘Nashville’: Ronee Blakley Looks Back at the Making of an American Classic

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Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is revered to this day – almost 40 years since Pauline Kael’s rabid review heralded the arrival of a new American masterpiece – because it provided an iconic snapshot of a loosely defined generation trying to solve helplessness with ambition, and loneliness with audiences. On the other hand, “Nashville” is perhaps best remembered because Altman almost managed to fit that entire generation into the film.

An epic musical cross-section of American identity that criss-crosses Music City by hitchhiking onto two dozen different stories in the days leading up to a political rally for an unseen Replacement Party candidate, the enormous yet brilliantly identifiable ensemble cast, whose overlapping narratives and drive-by dynamics would soon typify Altman’s style, is comprised of no less than 24 lead characters. 23 of them were played by some of the most accomplished and / or rising actors of the era, from Karen Black as a mediocre singer in command of her star power, to Henry Gibson as a Svengali with a Napoleon complex and Jeff Goldblum as a silent spirit who ties the various plot threads together from the seat of his three-wheel motorcycle. But it’s that 24th part, played by a somewhat unknown country singer who serendipitously fell into the role mere days before production began, that elevates “Nashville” from a film we remember to a film we can’t forget.

“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.” – Pauline Kael

Time was that a single critic could change an actor’s life, but, with all due respect to the great Pauline Kael, if she hadn’t said it somebody else sure would have. A prodigiously talented singer whose remarkable debut album was released three years prior to “Nashville”, Blakley was certainly a success before she met Robert Altman, but some people just can’t help avoid stardom.  A Juilliard graduate from a religious Idaho family with activism in their blood (when Blakley’s brother came out, their mother became a fierce champion for gay rights), Blakley first dipped a toe in the movie business when she composed the soundtrack for the hyper-controversial 1971 film “Welcome Home, Solider Boys”, by which point she had already introduced Carnegie Hall audiences to the glories of the Moog synthesizer.

Blakley, not yet 30 at the time, was originally hired to consult on “Nashville”, but Robert Altman’s legendary nose for talent ensured that a promotion was in short order. Days before cameras were set to roll, Altman found himself without an actress to play the pivotal part of Barbara Jean, the delicate darling of the Nashville music scene whose wilting genius serves as the indivisible nucleus of the film’s helter skelter chaos. Blakley was the obvious choice. All of the actors in “Nashville” were required to write and perform their own songs, regardless of their musical experience (or lack thereof). For Blakley, that wasn’t going to be a problem. Barbara Jean is supposed to be the most talented musician in the movie, and casting Ronee Blakley ensured that she would be.

Naturally, “Nashville” changed Blakley’s life forever. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, and won the National Board of Review’s prize for the same category. She was on the cover of magazines like Newsweek and Interview. She acted for Walter Hill (“The Driver”), toured with Bob Dylan, wrote for Bob Altman (two unproduced screenplays), and married Wim Wenders. That being said, to chart Blakley’s career against the names of her male collaborators is to greatly diminish her achievements and her singular value as an artist. While her two albums as a country artist sound as vital today as they did in the early 1970s, Blakley’s later work reveals her to be a true polymath, from her 1985 docudrama “I Played it for You”, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival, to her ongoing forays into the world of spoken word poetry (all of which are available through her website). Most exciting of all may be her upcoming feature film “Of One Blood”, a provocative feminist rallying cry that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s most urgent work.

With The Criterion Collection set to release an immaculate and comprehensive Blu-ray / DVD edition of “Nashville” in early December, I recently had the chance to speak with the warm and extremely gracious Ronee Blakley about the movie that changed her life, working with Robert Altman, and how her current projects were colored by the experience. As we settled into our relaxed conversation, it was easy to infer from her voice how sincerely she loved working with Robert Altman, and how the ecstatic communal spirit seen in the movie was merely an echo of that felt on the set.

FILM.COM: Where am I calling you today?

RONEE BLAKLEY: I am in, uh, do you know California? Are you in California yourself?

I am in the middle of Times Square right now.

[Laughs] I’m in the Valley, in Los Angeles. Do you know that area?

I’ve been out there a few times. Probably not as often as I should have been. But, I’ve been around.

Are you a youngster?

That’s a really loaded question. I just turned 29, so I’m staring at 30.

Oh, you’re a babe.

That’s very comforting to hear you say.

[laughs]

So I’m a little bit younger than you were when you in “Nashville”?

No, I was 28 when I made “Nashville”, but turning 29, because my birthday’s in August.

Well, I already feel like a slacker, in that case. Have you re-watched the film often since it first came out?

I don’t know what counts as often, but I have watched it, and I am blown away by it every time I see it, and I always see and hear something new. And it’s so great on the big screen, because there’s a lot going on.

I was reading an interview with you, and you said “They always think you’re dead if they haven’t heard from you in the last minute or so.” So, I wonder if it’s strange to live under that constant pressure for an entire career as an entertainer, and yet still be talking about something you made 40 years ago?

It’s very interesting. You know, it would be nice if I had 50 “Nashville”s to refer to, but I only have the one, and I’m proud of it and glad that I did do it. So, it does seem quite amazing to me that, 40 years on, that people are interested in it, continue to be interested in it. Even the response on my Facebook wall has been enormous. It seems that countless people are going to be ordering it, and I think, “Isn’t that amazing? A 40-year-old project that still has immediacy for people, that still has meaning and the power to move.”

I know you came from a family with sort of a proud activist background, and, by the time you were cast in the film, had already recorded songs with an activist bent to them. Did the nature and interests of Altman’s film make it easier for you to make that transition into acting, as though it wasn’t a new skill set for you but rather a tweaked form of something you had been doing for years? 

Well, I had always acted. As a child, I acted, if that’s what you meant. Or were you talking political activism?

Maybe more the political activism, and just the fact that you had written songs like “Fred Hampton” and I wonder if the political undercurrents of the film made it a little bit easier for you to step into that terrifying, potentially, of a project like this for your first feature film?

You know, I never thought of it in political terms, because Barbara Jean herself was not political. Ronee Blakely was a left-wing student activist, but Barbara Jean was not. I’m sure that the entire aspect of it affected what I was doing, but in so far as Barbara Jean herself, I actually looked to my more conservative roots. And my Mother didn’t begin her activism until later – you may be talking about gay rights – she didn’t get into that until my brother Stephen came out. She was active in her church always, starting when I was in grade school, and I guess, sometimes when you’re active in church, it leads to liberal leanings for some people. The Disciples of Christ was my mother’s church, and she traveled a great deal for it, and, in the end, she became active and influential and, I think, changed lives and helped people.

That’s great. And speaking to sort of that divide between you and Barbara Jean, there is something very confessional about your performance, and the role itself, in a way that I thought was dissimilar from the other characters in the film. Most of the songs in the film are intimate, sure, but when we get to your song “Dues”, the film is imbued with a new and confessional element. There’s that line about writing thoughts down to feel better, and I know you kept a journal during the film.

Well, you know, that’s a word that people use, kind of a hot word. I don’t think anything was confessional, though people might describe my work – you just did – as confessional. Yes, I do tend to write from the heart, and whether it’s Fred Hampton, the murdered civil rights leader who gave breakfast to children in Chicago and said that he would die working for the cause of the people, that he didn’t wonder how he was going to die, he knew he was going to die, and he did. So, whether or not it’s Fred Hampton, or gay rights, on behalf of my brother as it turned out for my mother, and then universalized – Nicholas Ray said that “whatever is most personal is most universal.” And, um, that would be how I would bring it in from the universality of writing about somebody I did not know to writing the song you’re talking about “Dues”, which was not written for the movie.

It was written for your debut record three years prior, right? 

Well, its first appearance was in a movie called “Welcome Home, Soldier Boys” a movie by Richard Compton starring Joe Don Baker, Elliot Street, and Alan Vint. And it was about four Green Berets who return from the DMZ and slaughter their hometown of Hope, New Mexico. And that was, well, it was made for 20th Century Fox with a completion date of 1971, and then it was shelved because we had not yet invaded Cambodia, and it was too incendiary for the studio at that time. And I did the soundtrack for that. I got the credit: “Songs by Ronee Blakely.” And that film is what led to my first record album for Elektra, that you’re talking about.

Hmm. I didn’t know that sort of pre-history. I love that record so much, I have to tell you.

Thank you! You’re awfully young to be listening to that record. I don’t know how you discovered that.

I may be an east coast city boy, but I tend to really respond to bluegrass and older country. “Dues” just hit me right from the start, and it was definitely a bridge to the rest of your work, so I really do love that song in particular. Given that you were already a rather notable musician when you were cast in “Nashville”, was it strange to become truly famous by faking the perils of celebrity on screen?

Oh, you know, it felt like a very natural part, in a way. And that’s partially because I created a lot of it, as Altman let me do that. In some ways, we can fall in love with our roles. It’s sometimes very difficult to leave them behind. I read an article about Michelle Williams where she was saying she could have been Marilyn Monroe forever. Sometimes it’s hard to lay down a part, because, many times, you know, you do end up living it. While you’re with it, you live it. I’m not saying all actors do that, but I tend to, and especially with that part. So, it was, uh, the onslaught of sudden fame is a blessing and a curse. It was fabulous. I was practically almost forklifted to the top floor of the Sherry Netherland Hotel when the press saw Nashville and decided to tout it. I remember when I was on the cover of Newsweek, I remember getting back off the road to my apartment in Hollywood and having them call me and ask if I had a picture of myself they could use for the cover. And I didn’t have one! [laughs]

Wow, it was that quick?

Well, that was months later, maybe even a year later, maybe six months, I can’t even remember right now. It’s just that, you don’t think of it happening that way. You don’t think of getting a phone call in your apartment where they say, “This is so-and-so, could you give us a picture of yourself, because we would like to put it on the cover of Newsweek.” I was like “let me think, I have a couple of headshots, something casual, riding horseback, or whatever.” You don’t really have anything. Unless you’re already a star, like, let’s say Angelina Jolie. When they wanted to put her on the cover of Time magazine for having her mastectomy, she probably had a photograph that they could use.

She probably had a couple. This might be a bit of a reach in that respect, but I’ve always been interested in Barbara Jean’s somewhat ambiguous fate. Well… maybe it’s not so ambiguous. Was it ever explicitly clear to you that she died? Or was it easier, just for you personally to move on, to think that she died?

I thought both ways on it, which in itself is an ambiguity. I believe it was considered an assassination, people wrote that it was an assassination, but the film itself didn’t make that clear. She was hauled off-stage bleeding and unconscious, but it was unclear whether she had been killed, but it was said that she was. So, you can take it however you wish. I believe it’s commonly referred to as an assassination, that he was an assassin. I believe it was considered almost important. I remember when John Lennon was killed, the New York Times said “like in the movie ‘Nashville’.” And you know, there have been moments that have caused me queasiness, such as that, or when Joan Baez told me when she watched it, she pulled over to the side of the road one day. There are just moments that touch me, that get to me. What can I say? It’s a movie, it’s what Bob did, he did a great job with it, and I wouldn’t change a thing. So, whatever people take it to be, it’s certainly fine with me. I don’t think it’s any of my business.

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Fair enough. One of the things that really gets to me personally is the film’s pervading feeling of loneliness. The way that the characters orbit around one another without ever really making much of a genuine connection leaves me with the impression that that we’re all alone together.  Barbara Jean, if memory serves, may be the only character who’s never actually seen by herself. Even when she’s most severely alone, her husband is still there. Or Scott Glenn. I feel like she might be the loneliest character in the movie. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

Yes, quite a bit. That’s very astute of you, and I think that was a big part of her dilemma. And of course, existentially, we’re all alone.

I think a lot was made about whether or not the film was critical of this country music scene or not, and I was watching the documentary on the Criterion disc where you say that the film wasn’t so critical,that  it was ultimately a tribute. For me, if it was critical of anyone, it was critical of the audiences for this music, critical of the consumers who supported and encouraged the industry’s less pleasant elements.

I think there was irony and sarcasm as well as what I call a tribute. I mean, what better tribute could be paid? On the other hand, I think there’s room for all colors, when you talk about the appreciation of the music. You know, some people appreciate it profoundly, and are profound people, and some appreciate it simply, and are simple people, and others may go to it for the wrong reasons. Fandom itself may be looked at. There may be almost a Nathaniel West “Day of the Locust” quality to some of the zealousness of some of the fans. But I don’t think there’s ever a disrespect of the fans, per se, if anything it’s almost a glorification of the appreciation of music.

I think that’s really important, the idea that no one is genuinely disrespected at any point. I think that’s so important to a lot of Robert Altman’s films, that critical gaze that is never tainted by disrespect.

Yes, I mean, look at how many songs he put up there. And he played them all the way through. And he always, in any interviews or anything, showed nothing but respect for the songwriters and performers, whether or not they’re actors or sings. He certainly put performing artists up high on a pedestal.

And that respect, I would imagine, really carried over to the atmosphere on set. Would you say that it really was important to making someone like yourself, coming into a cast of established actors, feel right at home?

Yes, yep. Never anything less than that.

It was hard to watch the documentary on the Blu-ray and not wish that I was there and a part of the community involved in the making of the film. Other than Robert Altman, who I take it you remained somewhat close with afterwards, did you make a lot of close allies, friends, or collaborators from that project?

I like to think so. Although we didn’t work together again, Gwen [Welles] and I remained close. And Karen Black and I became close afterward, up until the time of her death we were good friends. I miss everybody and I wish we were still together. It was one of those things you almost don’t want it to end, but it must. Film sets are like that, oftentimes. And when you see each other again, you’re very happy and close.

To carry that idea forward, I’d love to talk about your more recent film work. Now that your focus is behind the camera, do you feel as if you’ve been influenced by Robert Altman or anyone else along the way as a director? 

Well, I’m sure every artist is the same way, but I’m influenced with every artist I work with. Whether or not it’s the first union I joined, which was Equity – my first union was as an actor – in 1968, right after I got out of Juilliard, I went and did Summerstock. I did Leeds and Summerstock. One was with Noel Harrison called “Half a Sixpence” and one was with Peter Rivera called, um, [laughs] what was the name of it?

I wish I could tell you.

“Sweet Charity”! It was “Sweet Charity.” In “Sweet Charity” I had a speaking lead, and then I’d go off and put on a wig and was one of the dancers. In “Half a Sixpence”, I didn’t dance, I don’t think I danced, but I had a speaking lead in that, too, and Noel Harrison became a friend of mine, who just died, I’m sorry to say. But I wanted to write. I didn’t want to just do something that had already been done, at that time. And got into electronic music. I was just emailing the other day with Gershon Kinglsey, who’s 92-years-old, with whom I performed at Carnegie Hall the first time that Moog synthesizers were ever used in Carnegie Hall. So, my influences vary. And, of course, they accumulate, like dust on a shoe after this many years.

I guess you could say my main ones are the people I loved and worked with, whether or not it was Wim Wenders, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Robert Altman… and then I throw in my own bit. I wish I had millions of dollars making huge budget movies, but as it is, I’m on this ultra low budget shoestring. So, I make exactly what I want! [laughs]

That’s great, you’re not going to have to compromise.

I make little, experimental things. The one I have now is almost an homage to Godard. Now, I didn’t work with him, but I was fortunate enough to meet him. I just kind of throw out my little things, whether it’s Bergman or Godard, or you know, whatever, whether it’s Warhol, just setting up a camera and letting it run. I love all the great artists, and I’m devoted to all of them.

[laughs] I’m sure they appreciate that. And I’d love to ask you about your new film “Of One Blood”, although before we get there I think I have to ask about the time you met Godard and what that was like.

Well, he gave me his book that he signed for me, and I was with Wim Wenders, who was my husband at the time – or at least boyfriend, I can’t remember if we were engaged or married then – and it was around the film festivals. There’s not that much to say about it.

Well, it’s a meeting of the minds that I would love to have seen.

So on to “Of One Blood”.

“Of One Blood” is a political movie, a study of [redacted]. As I said, it’s a very small film. I’m going to take back what I just said, cross that out. I don’t want to give it away! So, never mind, okay?

So, not about a [redacted]. It’s about… a person! Who is conflicted about something.

It’s about a young, radical feminist in LA, who is of her time. Grieving the death of her mom, and seeking justice for women in the Middle East.

And she’s played by your daughter, correct?

That’s right! My beautiful, wonderful daughter.

Was that a nice opportunity for you work work with her?

Yes. Her name’s Sarah Blakely-Cartwright. She has one of those hyphenated names.

When might we be able to see the film? Are there any plans for a release?

I do not know exactly, because I have not quite – I haven’t signed off on the final edit. I’m just putting the finishing touch on my final edit now. And, in fact, there’s a prologue of Wim Wenders and Patrick Morrison – my dear friend the painter. And they are discussing the student movement of the 60s. So, it’s kind of an homage to Godard, and “La Chinoise” And radical feminism, and in some ways it’s a cautionary tale.

Isn’t everything, though?

And I’m putting out an album of it, because it has my songs in it.

And if I understand correctly, you’re doing a night that is both your music and your spoken word poetry in December?

Yes, December 13 at Beyond Baroque, a poetry center which is a legendary location in Los Angeles. And, it’ll just be me, solo. Spoken word, maybe some songs, a little performance art.

Are there any plans to take that show on the road, outside California?

Well, not at this time, but I would love to. You know, I’m always tour-ready. I’m always “Have gun, will travel.” So, I’m always ready to go.

With these various talents you have, you’ve dipped your toe into so many different art forms. Do you still connect with the country music scene at all? Or do you see that as just a small part of who you are as an artist overall?

You know, lately, the country music scene, outside of Nashville, has garnered the name Americana. Have you heard of that?

I haven’t really, but I have to admit I’m not exactly up to speed. 

If you think outside Nashville, whether it’s Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings, or whether you come out to Bakersfield, or whether you go to LA for The Birds, and Buffalo Springfield, and Gram Parsons, I mean, you know, this is my genre, and I know a lot of the people. Lucinda Williams is still a good friend of mine, and I went to hear her Sunday. I also heard Stephen Stills, and I was honored to have him play with me in 1977.

It’s just, we’re all still in it. And the older generation, and by now I’m the older generation, but the generation even above us, for example, Loretta Lynn is being produced by Jack White. So, you have the new combining with the old. So I would say we’re all still together. And then you have people like Jim Lauderdale, you have some bonafide Nashville artists who are very, very close together. So, when, for example, a few years ago I went to present an award at the Americana Awards, which are held in Nashville, some of the Nashville artists came out to play, like Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill came out, Jim Lauderdale was on that show, Roseanne Cash. So, I would say we’re all still very much in the same river together. Just the one step over, that one generation over, has started to go. And we have to treasure Loretta while we’ve got her.

That’s heartening to hear. I know a lot of Robert Altman fans are going to be reading this and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you had any favorite Robert Altman stories that would be fun to share.

Well, of course his brain was the most wonderful thing. His brain and his sense of humor. He was always fun to be with and even entertaining. That’s not what you want to hear, though. I have to think. He used to tell one story, which was on the first day of shooting on Nashville for me, as Barbara Jean, he just said, “I just ask all my actors not to contradict me on the set. On the set, time is money. I want to hear what you have to say, but it’s not a time for arguing.” Anyway, the first thing I had to do was the scene where Barbara Jean was supposed to faint. So, he came and gave me the instruction to give a little signal to Allen Garfield – who was playing my husband – so that he could catch me, and I wouldn’t hit the pavement. And I said “Oh, Bob, my knees would go first.” And Alan said he knew then he could catch me, and Bob said he knew it would be fine. And so the very first thing I did was contradict him! Well, anyway, it worked out. We used to laugh about that.

The Criterion Collection will release “Nashville” on December 3rd.


Categories: Columns, Interviews

Tags: Country music, David Ehrlich, Interview, Nashville, Robert altman, Ronee Blakley, The criterion collection, Wim wenders