In Black & White: Nashville

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

NASHVILLE. Bantam Books (paperback), illustrated. No pagination. $2.25.

On the spine it says “Robert Altman’s Nashville.” On the cover it says “Robert Altman’s Award-Winning Nashville, with an Introduction by Joan Tewkesbury.” On the title page, it says “Nashville, an Original Screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury.” This new and inviting little pocket-size is actually none of those things. It’s well known that Altman’s Nashville was about twice its present length before cutting, and this. book is way too tight to have been the “original screenplay.” It’s not a shooting script, either, because much of the dialogue is summarized in the directions, and too much is present in these pages that couldn’t have been known before the time of the actual shooting (for example, this book has the Monday night scene between Sueleen Gay and Wade, with no hint of the reported intention of the original screenplay that was to have her commit suicide). Yet the book isn’t simply a transcript of the film, either, because it does contain some dialogue and a lot of description that were not used in the film. What we have here, then, is not entirely Altman’s Nashville, and not entirely Tewkesbury’s.

Indeed, it’s hard to tell just who did assemble this effort at reproducing the film’s continuity. I say “assemble” rather than “write” because surely no writer was responsible for constructions like “Barbara-Jean was tragically burned in an accident in a fire as a child, which brought she and Haven together.” Or “a quiet dialogue between he and Linnea.” Or the rendering of Deemen’s Den as “Demon’s Den,” Albuquerque as “Albequerque,” and Vassar Clements as “Clemens.”

Obviously Altman, one of the least literarily inclined of directors, and in any case far too busy, had no hand in this project. And Tewkesbury’s Introduction, gushy and insipid as it is, is at least grammatically correct, so I question her involvement in the book, too. Clues to the real culprits are scattered about the book, if one cares to look for them. Near the end, for example, there appears a little legend which reads “Acknowledgements to Tony Peyser and Debbie Ross who helped prepare this book.” Acknowledgements. At least whoever wrote that line had the good sense not to say “Thanks.” The copyright page reveals the interesting information that this book is copyrighted by American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Not Joan Tewkesbury, or Robert Altman, or the elusive Peyser and Ross. No mention is made of editors or proofreaders—though if there were any who worked on this book, it’s easy to see why they would wish to remain anonymous.

The question of authorship, so frustratingly unanswered, is, alas, crucial. Many of the scenes and lines of the film come in for rather more explanation in this print version, and one wants to know just how reliable this additional information is, and how relevant it might be in considering some of the film’s characters and their motivations. The book tells us, for example, that Wade was in prison 28 years, that Bill went out and made it with L.A. Joan on Monday night, that what Kenny was doing in the junkyard was gathering parts for his broken car, that it was indeed Hal Phillip Walker who was being described as an “admitted homo” by a patron of the Deemen’s Den. The book gives us biographical background on many of the characters, even going into how Star met Winifred, the real relationship between Haven and Barbara-Jean, and the contents of a note which PFC Kelly writes to Barbara-Jean in her hospital room. Interesting—but is it reliable? (There is, by the way, no trace of the well-recounted revelation from the “other half” of the film that Opal was not from the BBC at all.)

The book is profusely illustrated with frame blowups, but with no attention paid to relative size or ratio. None of the pictures is in color; but a nice half tone process would have done them justice had not some groovy person, doubtlessly taking his cue from the “Bicentennial” motif of the film’s logo and advertising, decided to print the book in blue ink. As a result, the photographs give no suggestion of the shading, the contrast, the subtlety that marked Paul Lohmann’s photography in the film. Aha! Just rooted out another of the little varmints, down there at the very bottom of the back cover, where it says: “Book Design/Dan Perri.” Gotcha!

Neither the text, nor the stills, nor the juxtaposition of the two even begins to approach a reproduction of the film itself. In fact, about the only good thing about this book is the gentle, pleasant nudge it gives memory now and again. It’s a handy enough resource, too, I suppose, offering nearly complete dialogue and continuity, lists of cast and crew, lyrics to the major songs, and—in many ways the best reading in the book—Thomas Hal Phillips’s complete Hal Phillip Walker Campaign Speech.

Nevertheless, this book is scarcely any of the things it might have been, and it makes me sad because now its very existence will undoubtedly discourage other people from doing a really good book on Nashville.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here