The odds are very good that you’re going to have cast or crew attend a film fest in Los Angeles, but it was still a wonderful surprise to have Lily Tomlin come on stage for a Q&A after the screening of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville. And then, about halfway into her chat with AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga, when the floor was opened up to audience questions, she spotted costar Ronee Blakley, who came up onstage and joined in.
(Blakley was also at the Beyond Fest screening of 1978 Walter Hill film The Driver, but didn’t join the Q&A. Word to the wise: If you’re in Los Angeles and see a woman of a certain age in a big hat at a screening of a film she’s in, it just might be her.)
After sharing a big hug, the two shared stories about making the Robert Altman film more than 40 years ago, with Blakley saying coyly, “I cannot tell all the stories!” But they did share so many that they ran well over the allotted time.
Here are the highlights:
Tomlin originally didn’t like the role that won her an Oscar nomination.
Tomlin: “I wasn’t excited about playing Linnea. I was excited about being in Bob Altman’s film and it being my first movie. My family is Southern and I know the Southern culture fairly well, even though I was born in Detroit. So I felt that I understood who that woman was. I thought, ‘Well, there’s many other parts I could play in this.’ And as the actors came in, I began to see how Bob is just a great casting person. When he hired the actors who play my kids in the film [both of whom are deaf], he chose the first two ones that came. He was just that confident. Those kids came and those are the ones we had.”
Tomlin shot her own movie on the set — but has no idea where the footage is.
Tomlin: “I was going to make my own film, I had a sound film camera, a little dinky one. I’d go to set every day, even though I didn’t have to work to do. I would start filming the scene myself. I gave up on it after a while. I just stopped going. If I had, that would be something. Although, would you sit through three hours of a meandering camera?”
When asked if she still had the footage, she said, “I might have a few days of it. I’d have to really look for it.”
Altman got so stoned every night, Tomlin thought he’d never make it to set in the morning.
Tomlin: “He was a lovely guy, very terrific. When we were making Nashville, he was getting stoned every night. We would have dailies at the end of the day. You were not required to come, but it was a good idea if you came, because Bob said, ‘If anything happens, you have to accept it, if it applies to your character. And you need to keep up with the story.’ So everybody would go. And the pot was pretty freely floating around. But Bob would get absolutely… you just didn’t know how he was [still] walking. The first couple of days, I was real worried about him. I would say, ‘Well, he’ll never make it to the set in the morning.’ But by 5 or 7 am in the morning, he’d be on the crane, doing whatever he had to do. He was a big, just physically impressive person. His appetites seemed unending. He was voracious in everything he did. But, at least to all the actors, he was … I used to call him ‘The Benign Patriarch,’ because there was something easy about him and not domineering or patriarchal in that sense.”
The story Tomlin’s character tells about an injured relative? That was a true story.
Tomlin: “You never knew if you were being recorded. We were at a big gathering at Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson)’s house [the one where Elliot Gould shows up] and I was talking about my aunt hitting her head. That’s what was happening with my aunt in Nashville at that time. She had had an accident, struck her head on her car or something as she was getting in and developed a big hematoma. And you didn’t know if this story would be in the movie or not.”
A movie Tomlin wanted to make didn’t happen — because of Altman’s temper.
Tomlin: “I had optioned a book called Maiden by Cynthia Buchanan in 1971 when I was on Laugh-In. Everyone thought I was cheeky as hell because most comedians who were doing characters like Ernestine, they didn’t go into the movies. You didn’t cross over in those days. By the time I got Nashville, Bob had decided that he was going to make a movie of Maiden. I had bought the rights and my partner Jane Wagner had written the script. He wanted something for [Nashville screenwriter] Joan Tewkesbury to direct, so she was going to direct Maiden. And California Split was just coming out from Columbia and Columbia was the studio that was going to back Maiden. Some suits came down and told him they wanted him to cut 5 or 6 minutes of California Split. And he punched [one of them] in the nose and he fell in the pool. So Maiden never got made. But Altman was impetuous that way.”
Ronee Blakley was first hired just to write songs, not to act in the film.
Blakley: “I had seven songs in the movie and three were in the first movie that I scored, a movie called Welcome Home, Soldier Boys. Those songs led to Judy Collins’s producer signing me to Elektra and then Richard Baskin, who was the music producer for Nashville, liked that album. So that’s how he first introduced me to Bob, it was for my songs. I was originally on the movie as a songwriter. Susan Anspach was going to play Barbara Jean.”
Tomlin thought she’d ruined the movie in the close-up that probably earned her her Oscar nomination.
Tomlin: “Altman told me at one point that the audience would like me because they would identify with my moral center. Like the woman who hits the kid with the car in Short Cuts and she never even knows about it. But the audience would forgive me.”
Blakley: “Also when she has the affair with Keith [in Nashville]. That is so hot! And the close-up, as the camera comes in [as Carradine is singing “I’m Easy”]. It’s just a stunning shot, really exquisite.”
Tomlin: “Thank you, that is so sweet. I ran out of the dailies that night. Scotty — she was Bob’s right hand, she had a lisp and she smoked — she called me when I got to my room and she said, ‘Why did you leave the screening?’ I said, ‘Oh Scotty, it’s terrible. I just ruined the movie.'”
Blakely: “You got nominated for the Academy Award for that shot.”
Tomlin: “You know what scene I like from the movie? When I get called [by Carradine] from the dinner table and I get up and answer the phone. I thought she was the most real in that.”
Barbara Harris never worked with Altman again — for a number of reasons.
Tomlin: “I loved Barbara Harris, such a great comedian. She comes in on the last day of shooting, waving the SAG book. She said Bob owed each of us, every day we weren’t on the set, he owed us $5 for lunch. There were so many of us. And he had to pay each of us $350 because we were there for about two and a half months.”
Blakley: “She did something else bad. Oh, I feel bad saying anything. I’ll tell my other story, because I don’t want to say anything.”
Tomlin: “Did you think my story shouldn’t have been told? I thought she was brilliant.”
Blakley: “Okay, I’ll tell what she did…”
Tomlin: “I thought it was because she wanted to have that Indian blanket with her when she did her song at the end”
Blakley: “That and the bracelet? She wore the turquoise bracelet and he didn’t want her to, because that was too hip. She wasn’t supposed to be the hip one, she was supposed to be the country one. When Bob saw it in the dailies, he flipped.”
Tomlin: “I always thought she wanted to carry that American Indian woven blanket and it was something she wanted to say, to bring attention to the Native American issue. But I think what Bob really flipped about was the $350 [lunch money].
Blakley changed a scene in Nashville — and Altman was okay with it.
Blakley: “When Barbara Jean was first arriving at the airport, that was my first scene. Altman said, ‘I want to hear all your ideas, I’m open to anything. But on the set, time is money. So if I say no, don’t argue with me.’ Barbara Jean was going to faint and Bob said to me, ‘When you’re about to faint, give a signal to Allen Garfield [who played Barbara Jean’s husband, Barnett].’ And I said, ‘Oh no, Bob. My knees would go first.’ So the very first thing I did was contradict him on the set, but then he gave me that look. It turned out Allen had asked him to ask me to give him a signal because he was afraid he wouldn’t catch me. And then when he heard me say that to Bob, he knew he could catch me and he did catch me. I took the chance and disagreed with Bob and that’s what we did.”
Altman didn’t take it well when Tomlin couldn’t be in some of his later films.
Tomlin: “I was supposed to be in Kansas City and Pret-a-Porter. But I was working on something else and I didn’t want to sacrifice it. And the second one, I was trying to get a animated series for my character Edith Ann. And I wasn’t in a couple of vehicles after that, because Bob was kind of punishing me, he think.”
Altman wanted to make sure the other actors didn’t like Karen Black’s character
Tomlin: “When I got on Nashville, he gave us two places to live: The motel or the Haystack Apartments. So I moved out [of the apartment] right away, I couldn’t take the allergies. And he said, ‘You get back to those apartments.'”
Blakley: “Did you pay for your own hotel?”
Tomlin: “Oh yeah. Well, he wasn’t going to pay for it.”
Blakley: “When Karen came…”
Tomlin: “Oh yeah. You tell it.”
Blakley: “Didn’t she have a limousine?”
Tomlin: “Yeah, I think he used it in the movie.”
Blakley: “She was the only one who was allowed to come and go. We were all there for 10 weeks.”
Tomlin: “But here’s the best part: We went to him and complained about it. We asked him, ‘How come Karen comes in here and she gets to leave and we have to stay day after day in this heat when we’re not working?’ And he said, ‘You’re not supposed to like her.'”
Blakley wrote her own breakdown scene.
Blakley: “You know when Barbara Jean has her breakdown?”
Tomlin: “That was your invention. That was really good.”
Blakley: “Thank you. Yeah, I wrote that. On the day we were going out to Opryland to shoot, I was in makeup. I asked for someone to ask Bob to come down. I showed it to him, in my journal. He said, ‘Do you know it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘We’ll shoot it.’ And we went out and shot it.”
Tomlin: “You kept a journal?”
Blakley: “Yep. You’re in it!”
Tomlin concluded by saying, “We had a great time. I adored Bob. I think most actors who worked with him adored him. He was just so human. He was a terrific presence.”