Those 70s Movies (Part Three)

Nashville (1975)

director: Robert Altman. starring: a cast of 100s

This film was promoted as the movie of the Bicentennial, celebrated in 1976. Altman had not really had a box office hit since M.A.S.H. but his subsequent work (especially “McCabe & Mrs Miller”) is of high quality & received critical acclaim. While there is, undoubtedly, a political dimension to “Nashville” I feel that further viewing reduces the impact of the political campaign (the fictional Replacement Party) & emphasizes the real strength of the film, the development of a large range of characters as their stories intertwine.

Altman had been developing his style of film-making for some time. A large cast, all with a story, the use of overlapping imagery and dialogue aimed for a more naturalistic film. He used a repertory company of actors & some of these appear in the film. Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Murphy and Shelley Duvall worked with the director on numerous occasions & knew how it worked. A number of fine character actors are employed  in stronger parts than they were usually. In all cases they delivered one of the most memorable performances of their careers.

Set in the hermetic world of country music (the actors, along with Richard Baskin, wrote their own songs) and a slightly sprawling 160 minutes long. The appeal of the film is the assured & fascinating way the director balances all the stories and produces a coherent and provocative entertainment from such a large ensemble. It is an admirable achievement. The last two films I wrote about are damned near perfect. “Nashville” is not, I think, perfect but is an outstanding example of the work of a director who, along with his acolytes, produced some of the best American cinema of the 1970s.

A final word about the fine cast. The great Ned Beatty, Allen Garfield, the luminous Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely (a musician who had hardly acted before), Henry Gibson (stranded since Laugh-In) and Barbara Harris all contribute to the quality of the film. Harris, in particular, is enchanting. I now watch the original of “Freaky Friday” whenever it is on TV because her performance in “Nashville” confirms her quality as an actress of note.

Here’s the trailer for “the damnedest thing you ever saw”. It checks for more actors than I have mentioned and may confuse you further. Great films can be confusing…it’s OK.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

director: Milos Forman. starring: Jack Nicholson.

How can I do this film justice ? A favourite novel, a favourite actor and a director who, from his debut in the US, looked up to the job. I went to the cinema to see it on the day it opened and went again on the next weekend. It has remained a benchmark for how cinema can provoke, intrigue and entertain. A truly satisfying experience and proof that popular art does not have to condescend to reach a large audience.

The film of the book was a long time coming. There are extensive changes to the original source and the end result is stronger for them. Jack Nicholson as the rugged individualist, McMurphy, is no less than spectacular. His confrontations with the authorities in the mental asylum and his relationship with the inmates alternately delight and depress. The introduction of McMurphy’s unfocused energy into the bleak asylum aggravates his fellows into such memorable action. Christopher Lloyd, Danny de Vito, Will Sampson and others all contribute but none more than Brad Dourif as the stuttering Billy Bibbit. His final attack on the monstrous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) seems so justified that the audience is willing a murder to happen.

Milos Foreman and his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, created a film which can be bleak and depressing but, ultimately delights and uplifts. There are, sometimes broad strokes used about complicated issues but it is still story telling of the highest quality. Ah, you must have seen this anyway.

Here is the film’s theme by the composer Jack Nitzche, a man of equal quality to the others involved.