Ronee Blakley in Nashville (1975) - Supporting Actress Sundays (Wednesday Edition)

Everything about Robert Altman's legendary opus Nashville seems consciously built to underscore that Nashville's an ensemble work -- a collage portrait of a town, a culture, a nation. The first words of the trailer announce that Nashville's about "five days in the lives of 24 unforgettable people." The poster's crowded with faces. And the genius opening credits blare, scrolling (in the style of an old K-Tel anthology album) the names and faces of this extraordinary cast of characters. And yet, despite all this ensemble hoopla, one Nashville character does stand (on emotional, narrative, and structural levels) as the film's...oh...centerpiece, the single character upon whom each of those other 23 characters fixates at least once during the course of the film and the character whose arrival and "departure" frame the loose action of the intervening 160 minutes. That character is, of course, the reigning Queen of Country Music in Altman's Nashville: Barbara Jean, played by...

...Ronee Blakley in Nashville (1975).
approximately 26 minutes and 34 seconds on-screen
8 scenes
roughly 16% of film's total screen time

The film begins as a diverse crowd gathers at the Nashville airport to welcome Blakley's Barbara Jean -- a widely beloved country music superstar-- back to the country music capital. As a marching band oompahpahs an instrumental version of Barbara Jean's autobiographical anthem, "My Idaho Home," a phalanx of baton twirlers offers Barbara Jean the sequined equivalent of military honors. From first glimpse -- wearing a backcombed bouffant wig, daintily adorned with ribbon and footlong sweetheart curls, and a long-sleeved, high-collared, high-waisted floor length dress -- Blakley's Barbara Jean seems almost a direct spoof of Loretta Lynn, all sweet talk and humility mixed with savvy showmanship. And when Blakley's Barbara Jean collapses, fainting as she spontaneously strides to mingle with her fans...well, it seems almost that Joan Tewkesbury'd gone too far, the parallels between Barbara Jean and Loretta Lynn cutting a touch close to the bone.

And yet -- as much as Blakley and Tewkesbury by their own reports did base Barbara Jean upon Loretta Lynn's extraordinary charisma and notorious mid1970s breakdowns -- as the film unspools it becomes clear that Blakely's Barbara Jean is anything but a spoof of Loretta. (Though it remains consistently freaky to see Altman stage scenes so eerily prescient of Lynn's authorized, hagiographic biopic Coal Miner's Daughter, which came just a few years later.) To be sure, Blakley's Barbara Jean is not Loretta Lynn, even when she so totally is. (Just as Keith Carradine's Tom Frank simultaneously is -- and is not -- Kris Kristofferson. Or is that -- not? -- James Taylor...) Indeed, the fait-divers whiff of the Barbara Jean-Loretta Lynn similarities cues the film's clever and emotionally chaotic play with celebrity, especially the kinds of collateral damage wrought within a fame-obsessed society.

Blakley's Barbara Jean is a fragile bundle of normalcy when she's off-stage who transmogrifies into a galvanizing force of charisma when she's on. In her screen debut, Blakley gives an admirably simple performance that somehow, amidst this 24+ character swirl, emerges as the film's emotional compass. Blakley's Barbara Jean wears a finely sculpted mask of persona permitting her to become a kind of all-purpose cipher, both for her fans and for the film, a gesture that becomes emotionally emblematic for Altman's Nashville. When Blakley puts that mask on -- whether she's speaking at a podium, singing on a stage, or meet/greeting as she's wheeled from the hospital -- the Barbara Jean mask is radiant, full-voiced and full-power. When Blakley lets the mask fall, Barbara Jean is nearly vacant, with little to say or do that holds any interest. Thus, by so refining this mask, Blakley's Barbara Jean has nearly performed her self into irrelevance.

Blakley conveys this discordance -- the cavernous distance between Barbara Jean's electrifying performance persona and her near absence of self -- most poignantly in the character's longest, non-musical scene. Blakley's Barbara Jean sits on her hospital bed, listening to a radio broadcast of the Grand Old Opry performance by her rival Connie White (Karen Black, in a thrilling sketch of a performance). When Barbara Jean asks that the radio be turned off and her manager/husband Barnett refuses, what begins as a childish tantrum darkens into a searingly brief portrait of domestic abuse, with Barnett prompting Barbara Jean's submission as though she had merely forgotten her lines. After wishing him a cheery "bye bye" through her tears, Blakley seems to awaken and plaintively calls for her husband, alarmed it seems not at what has just happened but that there's no one there to cue her next move.

This scene haunts the mostly-musical scenes that follow in Blakley's performance as Barbara Jean. Whether Barbara Jean is singing in a chapel or on a stage, the hollow at the center of this enormous hurricane of talent resonates through every note. Yet it's to Blakley's credit that she doesn't try to squeeze the nervousbreakdowniness into the songs, as a more actorly performer might have. Rather, even as she rambles uncomfortably during an Opryland performance (where Barbara Jean's patter comes excruciatingly close to removing her performance mask in front of her adoring fans), Blakley maintains a clarity and simplicity for Barbara Jean. And this choice allows Barbara Jean to remain almost completely without guile and thus provide the essential link in the extraordinary chain of events in Altman's generally dystopian view of the duplicitous power of performance. And though Ronee Blakley didn't do much else as an actress after Nashville, her Barbara Jean remains an astonishing and formidable accomplishment. A fascinating, strange performance that fundamentally anchors this extraordinary and confounding film...

• • • • •

Tune back on New Year's Eve morn for
1975's Supporting Actress Smackdown!

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n69n said...

thats a great essay!

i think Barbara Jean is the most "pure" character in the film...& at the end, she dies for everyone's sins.

another thing is...when she's in the hospital & wants to turn off Connie White on the radio...thats her real character coming thru; she knows that Connie is her rival & she doesnt want to hear Connie's insincere well-wishes. her husband bullies her back into submission, back into playing the game of politics.


this performance freaks me out. maybe because I don't know anything about ronee blakley in real life and i've never seen her in anything else. I always feel like a real country singer with emotional problems is accidentally trapped in an altman film with a bunch of actors I know and love.

uncanny and that long long meltdown while performing is classic.

tims.email said...

Ronee's two albums have FINALLY been re-released on CD. "Welcome" is an album I've loved since I found it in the early eighties. The other, "Ronee Blakley", isn't as memorable, but definitely worth getting if you like Ronee's singing/songwriting. They're available at Amazon.