Nashville (1975): Film Critics Response to Altman’s Epos?

Made in 1975, Nashvile is considered to be one of Robert Altman’s masterpieces.  But how was the film received upon its initial response?

The New Yorker Pauline Kael’s most (in)famous critical ploy was her “preview” of Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, which she wrote before the final version was ready.  Some regarded her loyalty to Altman as no more than extension of the publicity machine.  Kael’s review was used for the movie’s publicity and promotion in the same way that United Artists had reprinted her review of Brando’s Last Tango in Paris in its entirety, back in 1973.

This piece so infuriated Vincent Canby that he devoted a whole film view at the Sunday New York Times (March 9, 1975) to his thoughts on the practice, calling it “On Reviewing Films before They’re Finished.”  “If one can review a film on the basis of an approximately three-hour rough-cut, why not review it on the basis of a five hour rough-cut? A ten-hour cut?  On the basis of the screenplay?  The original material if first printed as a book? On the basis of press release? Gossip items?

Kael’s disclaimer, however, is that “Nashville isn’t in its final shape yet, and all I can do is suggest something of its achievement.”  Explaining its structure, she wrote: “The picture is at once a Grand Hotel-style narrative, with twenty-four linked characters; a country-and-Western musical; a documentary essay on Nashville and American life; a meditation on the love affair between performers and audiences; and an Altman party.”

However, not all the major critics adored the film.  Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic found it to be bloated and straining to be an all-American metaphor.

The influential Village Voice critic, Andrew Sarris, admired the beginning and the end of the picture, but found the middle sections deficient because the interrelationships between the 24 characters seemed more suited to a big sprawling novel than to one feature-length film (whose running time was 159 minutes).  As an auteurist critic, Sarris compared it to Altman other films, especially the ritual death issue.