The Story (continued)
On the freeway, a massive, chain-reaction, non-fatal pile-up snarls the traffic from the airport. Two objects which don't belong on the freeway cause the smashup. A sofa falls off an open-bed truck, and a car towing a boat trailer veers to avoid it and causes further collisions. [Only Barbara Jean and Barnett aren't involved in the traffic logjam.] During the tie-up, Tom accepts phone numbers from young female admirers. One of the trapped cars contains Opal and Linnea coming from the recording studio - Opal describes the pile-up for the benefit of her own reporting, reaching for cliches without recognizing the truth:
All those mangled bodies...There must be about twenty cars. They're all piled up one on top of the other. Some of them upside-down. I saw a leg sticking out...I wish my camera man had been here. He's never around when he should be. You see, I need something like this for my documentary. I need it. It's-it's America. Those cars smashing into each other and all those mangled corpses...
One of the stalled vehicles bears a troubled, angry young drifter named Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) - from Columbus, Ohio. Delbert encourages the man to clear his vehicle out of the way and pull through where the ambulance went. He is curtly told:
Kenny: Why don't you come on in and try it?
Delbert: What? What's the matter, son?
Kenny: I'm stalled.
Kenny's car radiator erupts with an Old Faithful-style spray of water and steam. The loudspeaker foreshadows the violence of the film's finale, as Kenny removes his fiddle case atop a pile of Walker posters in the back seat of his inoperative vehicle: "...twelve thousand major crimes committed [in New York] for every one thousand committed in Tokyo." He deserts his disabled car. To pass the time during the chaotic delay, Opal interviews Linnea, learning that she is, ironically, the mother of two born-deaf children, twelve and eleven.
Two others caught in the traffic jam are sitting in a red pickup truck: dizzy, frizzy blonde-haired self-styled "Albuquerque" (Winifred) (Barbara Harris) and her redneck farmer/husband Star (Bert Remsen) - an ironic name. Opportunistic Triplette lures Delbert with a politician's promotional banter, extoling the virtues of country western folk, and labelling usual film stars as just too weird for the 'grass roots' crowd expected to attend the rally:
You see, the thing with these country people is they have a real grass-roots appeal...and they're the people that elect the President...If we line up a lot of movie stars, I think people down here feel that movie stars are eccentric. Crazy. Communists. A lot of 'em are.
Another aspiring country-western singer wishing for the bright lights of stardom is Albuquerque - she runs away from her husband by abandoning him in the truck. Opal manipulates her way into the road-show van of black country singer Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) for an interview. She doesn't realize that Tommy Brown is the fellow who opens the door and first talks to her. In their white open Jeep, Lady Pearl (with a purple parasol to shade her from the heat) insists on her memory of a song lyric with Haven and Bud - her voice escalates in volume:
God damn it. It was Wanda, Wanda...WANDA, WANDA, WANDA, WANDA - what difference does it make? It was a hit!
Walker's van loudspeaker: "There's no breathing space. What we need first and foremost is a common-sense approach - nothing complicated." To a van filled with black support staff and Brown's wife, Opal mindlessly speculates about Brown: "He must be a marvelous person. Because, I mean, to have all you lovely people working for him - in the South, I know the problems in the South. I've heard of them."
In the Nashville hospital, Barbara Jean is situated in a hospital room, on the same floor where Mr. Green visits his sick wife Esther. As Barnett tries to dominate the scene and take control of her attentive followers, Barbara Jean's room and the hallway nearby is jammed with people - Tommy Brown, Bud, Triplette, Delbert, Opal, L.A. Joan, and Pfc. Kelly. Espousing her ambitions about how she wants to escape with no sense of direction "to become a country western singer or star," Albuquerque hikes along the road with Kenny - both are vehicle-less.
Optimistically, Sueleen practices her act in her room - she awkwardly adopts the mannerisms and postures of other singers, and stuffs her bra with thick, white athletic socks to enhance her breasts:
Hi. My name's Sueleen Gay. And I'm here to sing you all a couple of songs tonight that I wrote. And I sure hope you're gonna enjoy 'em, honey, 'cause I know I'm gonna enjoy singin' 'em to ya. The first one I'm gonna sing tonight is called "Let Me Be The One."
The dumb, groupie-following L.A. Joan leaves the hospital with Bud Hamilton, while disregarding her uncle and ignoring a visit to the room of her deathly-sick aunt. Outside the "Old Time Pickin' Parlor" [similar to Hollywood's 'Whiskey A-Go-Go'] that features Live Bluegrass Music (and has a wall poster of J. F. Kennedy), young female supporters of Walker's campaign, each wearing red-white-blue outfits, pester an occupant of a car with posters. Wade, Tommy Brown, Haven (sanctimoniously drinking white milk compared to everyone else's beers), Bill and Mary, and Kenny (who "looks like Howdy Doody" according to Mary) are entertained by the Misty Mountain Boys. [The back of Kenny's jacket reveals that he is a Vocational Agricultural student from Columbus, Ohio.]
Lady Pearl presides over and manages the club - during a break, she introduces the local talent, including popular black singer Tommy Brown. Wade accuses Brown of being a traitor: "He's the whitest nigger in town." Innocent and mild at this point in the film, Kenny accidentally gets into the middle of the precipitated violence and is thrown to the floor. Lady Pearl threatens to stop the fighting brought about by Wade's insult: "Nigger boy, I got two guns here" - they're plastic squirt guns.
At another night spot tavern - Deemen's Den - Trout (Merle Kilgore), the proprietor/bartender lets local amateur talent take the stage in exchange for beers - the Smokey Mountain Laurel singers (Sheila Bailey and Patti Bryant) perform "Down to the River." Albuquerque's distraught husband (who has lost his star-seeking wife) is at the bar drinking a beer, seated next to his departed wife's counterpart - another aspiring singer Sueleen. Tom and Opal, L.A. Joan and Bud, and the grinning, yellow goggle-eyedTricycle Man are also in the audience. Trout is overhead on the soundtrack describing the kinds of people who support Walker:
...the kind of guys that go for this Hal Phillip Walker...long hairs and smoke cigarettes that look funny. I'll tell ya, I heard this guy is an admitted homo...
The untalented, tone-deaf, would-be singer Sueleen is given her big chance to sing "Let Me Be The One" - her atonal, posturing act is full of awkward mannerisms. Behind him, Star suddenly recognizes the voice of his wife who has wandered into the bar and is promoting herself to Frog: "I'm making a demonstration album at a recordin' studio, and, uh..." Star turns about, calls out "Winifred!" who responds: "Whuut!?" After a short moment's hesitation, she whirls away from him and runs away.
Connected by phone to the Reese household, Trout recommends Sueleen as an "absolutely dynamite" 'talent' prospect to Delbert and Triplette for a fund-raising "smoker" to be held Monday night before the political rally.
Before dinner at the Reese's upper middle-class home, Delbert wanders into the dining room where Linnea is attentive to her two deaf children. He asks Jimmy (James Calvert), his son: "What are ya tellin', huh?" Linnea makes her husband Delbert lean with one arm on his chair and wait to talk to her until she listens encouragingly to one of her children (using sign language) describe his swimming class. Their marriage is not warm or sharing common goals - he hasn't even taken the time to learn his children's sign language. Delbert asks his son again: "What are ya tellin', Jimmy?...What'dya do? Swim today? Did ya learn anything?" Linnea hushes her husband to quit interrupting: "Hush - let him tell it." Applause from Deemen's Den for Sueleen's singing also applauds the son's triumph in his swimming lesson. L.A. Joan changes her appearance with a brown Afro wig. She also changes her partner by dumping Bud and joining up with the mischievous trick-playing Tricycle Man for a ride on his bike.
Back at the Reese's home during dinner where Triplette has been invited, Linnea answers the phone with her mouth full of food - it is a call from Tom (the first of three calls with him in the film) whom she met "in the control room at the recording studio about two months ago." The seductive guitarist comes on to her, calling her "attractive" and propositioning her to get together. When she proposes that he meet her husband, he promptly ends the phone call, but she continues with a formal goodbye even after he has hung up: "Oh well, I'll talk to you later, thank you for callin'."
Star-admirer Pfc. Kelly slips into Barbara Jean's room with flowers to sit and watch over her for the entire night. Barbara Jean's prone position in her bed, with her arms resting gently in front of her, suggest a death pose. The Tricycle Man, who delivers L.A. Joan back to Mr. Green at the hospital on Friday night, and then crosses the screen from left to right on his bike the following morning, serves as a transitional link between Friday and the next day.
Day Two (Saturday):
The Walker loudspeaker broadcasts platitudes combining the politics of 60s and 70s figures such as George McGovern, George Wallace, and Eugene McCarthy. The message appears to fall on the deaf ears of the common folk. During part of the long message from the Walker van, Albuquerque wakes up after an uncomfortable night's sleep in the back of a car. She rummages in her large purse as she crosses a busy street, oblivious to the car collision that she has caused behind her:
If the Chairman of the Board or the President of your company had been running your business the way Washington has been running our business, you'd be asking a lot of questions. And you would find out what you already know. We have some problems that money alone won't solve. Now I know something about money. Anybody who grew up without it knows a lot about money. I know more about money than some of the rich because I never had any until I was twenty-seven. I know something of what money can do, and more important, I know something of what it can't do. Nothing makes sense to let the petroleum lobbies fix their prices at will, adding to an already staggering profit. But tell the little filling station owner in his khakis - he can't charge one penny more. To tax the salary of the people of poverty-level income, then turn around and give back in food stamps twice the amount of the tax. If there's any cleaning up done, we're going to have to do it. The Lord is not going to do the replacing. And the powers-that-be are certainly not going to replace themselves. That old truth remains: 'There is no such thing as a free lunch.' If the books are to be balanced, we're going to have to balance them.
Kenny walks in front of the Green house, passing the Walker van. He is looking for a room for rent as a boarder. Mr. Green, who has nodded off on the front porch, is awakened and brings Kenny into the home and shows him around: "That's your room straight ahead there, Kenny." Mr. Green apologizes for the "dusty" conditions since his wife is in the hospital, but "there's clean sheets on the bed." [In the later phone conversation, Kenny's mother worries that the sheets aren't very clean.] In the room (decorated with rose wallpaper) is a sewing machine - a reminder of Mrs. Green's presence.
The tri-colored van passes the Reese home in the suburbs:
Oh, I know the political positions are lacking. But not quite as loud today as they were yesterday.
With hand gestures, Linnea teaches her two children the words to "Sing, Sing a Song."
Tom has deserted his fellow singers and independently found a hotel room on his own. The camera focuses on a Teac tape deck on which his own song plays a solo performance: "It Don't Worry Me." "The economy's depressed, not me, My spirit's high as it can be, And you may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me." The camera pans across the morning-after scene following his one-night sexual liaison with Opal - the floor of his cluttered room is strewn with clothing. He taps her on her shoulder in bed next to him to awaken her - a half-filled wine carafe sits on the bedside table. For a moment, she thinks she is in Israel: "I must have been dreaming - I was there for about a year in a kibbutz. I was feeling very sort of romantic about that kind of socialism." While she is still present, the repellent singer phones Linnea one more time.
Delbert, who is waiting patiently by the stove for water to boil for hard-cooking an egg [a fantastic metaphor for his personality], answers the phone - he passes the call to Linnea. With her husband present, she denies knowing Tom, threatens that he never call there again, and hangs up on him. To Delbert, she identifies the caller as "some crazy person," and asks her husband to "get the po-lice on him" the next time he calls.
The Tricycle Man brings Opal and Albuquerque on his bike to an afternoon gathering in the woods at Haven Hamilton's country place for his friends - to celebrate his evening's performance at the Opry. Having sighted the dangerous, low Easy Rider style bike, Linnea is reminded of a hospital ward full of crippled boys, and soon after, the fate of another accident victim:
Over here at that Baptist hospital, there's a whole ward full of young boys - the cutest, best-lookin' boys you'd ever want to see, just paralyzed from the waist down...well she had this most horrible accident...and she got a lick on the head, you know, as she was getting into a car - one of those little tiny cars...and this happened almost a year ago. No one had any idea that this was gonna develop into such a horrible thing....And somehow, the blood began to drain into behind her eyeball, you know, and the pressure just caused her eye just to buulge out - and it was all red. It was just awful-lookin' and everybody thought she was gonna lose her eye. We still don't know how it's gonna come out.
Kennedy-obsessed Lady Pearl brusquely admits to Triplette that Delbert spoke out of place by promising Haven's appearance at the political rally. Hamilton initially declines endorsing Walker at his Tennessee rally, arguing that he cannot publicly support any political candidate:
Lady Pearl: Now I'm real sorry ol' Delbert went and told you Haven would appear at the political rally. He knows better than that. Well, we never let Haven Hamilton take sides politically.
Haven: You understand. We give contributions to everybody. And they are not puny contributions.
Lady Pearl: Only time I ever went hog-wild, around the bend, was them Kennedy boys. But they were different.
Bill and Mary's chauffeur drives up with Hollywood star Elliott Gould to attend the Hamilton party. The familiar voice of the film star is heard through the shaded windows of the vehicle long before he steps out. Gould describes why he is there: "I'm just coming to a party...I'm promoting a movie [Altman's own California Split (1974)?] but I'm not making one." Wade, who is one of the catering waiters, corners Albuquerque and questions her about why she's crashing the party:
Wade: What are you doin' here, anyway?
Albuquerque: I came on a date, and now I'm goin' to the Grand Ole Opry.
Opal interviews Buddy about how he works as his father's business manager to placate his father's ambitions and deny his own singing career:
Buddy: I'm not a singer. I'm a businessman. I take care of all of Dad's business and...
Opal: You're a businessman?
Opal: (laughing) With that face? You can't be a businessman.
Buddy: Yeah. I work with Dad's company. I take care of his records and, you know, all his business. Anything that comes in comes through me.
Opal: Do you like it?
Buddy: Oh yeah, it's great. It really is. You know, Dad's wanted me to do that all his life.
With his charm, Triplette sways milk-drinking Haven with an offer to become State Governor, if he will appear on stage for Walker's rally:
I don't know how you're gonna feel about this, but uh, Walker thinks that you'd make a fine governor in this state. He thinks the time's right. He thinks the people in Tennessee love you. He knows they do. He knows how you feel about them. And he wants you to know that, uh, should the time come and you wanna run, why, uh, he'll be there with his organization to back you all the way.
Hamilton postpones his decision until after his performance at Opryland that evening. Opal pursues her interview in more depth with Buddy - he betrays his dissatisfaction with his life:
Opal: Do you want to be a singer? Look at me.
Buddy: Oh, I think everybody...Dad wouldn't hear of it. He really wouldn't. He...
Opal: But you want to be a singer...You wrote a song!
Buddy: Yeah. I wrote one song in my life, and uh...
Opal: Will I get to hear it?
Buddy: You sure? (She nods approvingly.) OK.
With a sincere, touching tone, Buddy begins to sing "The Heart of a Gentle Woman." In the middle of his heartfelt tune, she is distracted by the sudden realization that Elliott Gould is there and she needs to corner him for an interview - she interrupts Buddy's only opportunity to sing - denying him the experience that his father also has effectively subverted.
On the marquee for OpryLand and the Grand Ole Opry for the evening's show are the names of three performers: Connie White, Haven Hamilton, and Tommy Brown - sponsored by the makers of Goo Goo Clusters, the 'goodest' candy bar in the world. Tommy Brown performs first, singing "Bluebird." The Tricycle Man, L.A. Joan and the Pfc., Kenny, and Star are in attendance. Folks in the audience non-chalantly walk down the aisles to get closer to the performers and snap pictures. Albuquerque is able to slip in the front door during the confusion when Delbert and Opal enter, but she is held up at the stage door by a security guard. Sueleen is listening to the radio broadcast of the Opry concert in her lower-class bedroom while practicing her own act in front of her mirror - the top of her dressing table is covered with a statue of the Virgin Mary, a blow dryer, and her radio.
In one long, flowing shot, the unctuous, white-outfitted, gaudily-dressed Haven Hamilton is the second to appear, striding onstage and bringing his backstage entourage of Delbert, Triplette, Bud, and Lady Pearl with him. He performs "For the Sake of the Children" and "Keep A'Goin'." Triplette can't help making snide comments about the diminutive singer: "How tall is that guy?" and "He's got the entire galaxy on the back of his shirt." Barbara Jean and Barnett listen to the concert together from the solitude of her hospital room.
The bitchy, second-in line Connie White is the third performer, a "stand-in" for Barbara Jean. She is decked out in a shiny red-dress, and the black roots show below her honey-colored hair. On her way in, she passively ignores Albuquerque's pleas to assist her in getting by the backstage guard. Triplette evaluates Connie White's dress: "The last time I saw a dress like that, I was headed for the junior prom. The girl fell out of the car halfway to the dance." Before singing, Connie encourages young fans at the lip of the stage: "Just remember, any one of you can grow up to be the President." She then performs: "Memphis" and "I Don't Know If I Found It In You."
Barbara Jean loses some grasp of reality while listening to her competitor's performance from her hospital bed. She sarcastically proposes giving Connie one of the flower arrangements from her collection. Barnett exploits and guides her tenuous hold on the real world, explaining why he is going to thank Connie White for appearing in her place. Barbara Jean replies in a mechanistic, subservient, puppet-like manner as he prompts and rehearses her responses:
Barnett: Are you goin' nutsy on me? Is that what you're doin'? 'Cause I won't stand for that, Barbara Jean. Huh? You havin' one of those nervous breakdowns again? Huh?
Barbara Jean: No.
Barnett: Well, you could have fooled me, 'cause it looks like you're ready for it. Now you just settle down and shape up. You understand? Now the only reason I'm goin' over there is 'cause I love you. I don't love to go over there and hob-knob with them phonies. Why do you make me raise my voice at you? Why do you put us both through this? Are you alright?
Barbara Jean: Yes. (crying and whimpering)
Barnett: Come on. Let's just have a little smile for Barnett.
Barbara Jean: I'm tired of this place.
Barnett: Come on, now, come on, now. Get up. You help me. I help you. Alright? Come on, now. Come on. Now where's Barnett goin'? Where am I goin'? Hmm?
Barbara Jean: King of the Road.
Barnett: And why am I goin' there?
Barbara Jean: To see Connie.
Barnett: And why am I doin' that?
Barbara Jean: To thank her for singin' at the Opry.
Barnett: And who am I doin' that for?
Barbara Jean: You're doin' it for me.
Barnett: That's right. Now, I'm walkin' out now. What do you say as I walk out? You say, 'Bye, bye.'
Barbara Jean: Bye.
Barnett: 'Bye, bye.'
Barbara Jean: Bye. (After he's left and she's alone, she pathetically calls after him.) Barnett? Barnett?
Following the Opryland show, Connie and Haven attend another club - the King of the Road. Bill is anxious when Mary is late in arriving, and intuits that "there's something else goin' on." Haven and Connie are introduced to film star Julie Christie. Ignorantly, Connie responds: "You're English, aren't you? I can tell." Haven is smoothly offensive: "I hope you'll remember what film facilities we have here in Nashville." After the star has left, Haven tells Connie about Christie's Hollywood fame with syrupy condescension: "She's a famous star. She's won the Academy Award...She got it for one of those pictures. I don't know which one it was. She's done so many...She's lovely. She's just a beautiful girl." Connie slurs her, denying her star status: "She can't even comb her hair." [An in-joke reference to Christie's other Altman film McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)?]
Whimpering to express her caring about politics and her militant support for Catholicism, Lady Pearl delivers a long, inter-cut, rambling but moving monologue to Opal about her devotion to the two assassinated Kennedy brothers:
It's John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Well, he, he took the whole South except for Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky. And there's a reason he didn't take Tennessee but he got 481,453 votes and the asshole got 556,577 votes...Now the problem we got here is anti-Catholicism. These dumb-heads around here - they're all Baptists and whatever, I don't know. Even to teach 'em to make change over at the bar, you gotta crack their skulls, let alone to teach 'em to vote for the Catholic just because he happens to be the better man...All I remember, the next few days was us just lookin' at that TV set and seein' that great fat-bellied sheriff sayin' 'Ruby, you son of a bitch.' And Oswald and her in her little pink suit...And then comes Bobby. Oh, I worked for him. I worked here, I worked all over the country, I worked out in California, out in Stockton. Well, Bobby came here and spoke and he went down to Memphis and then he even went out to Stockton California and spoke off the Santa Fe train at the old Santa Fe depot. Oh, he was a beautiful man. He was not much like John, you know. He was more puny-like. But all the time I was workin' for him, I was just so scared - inside, you know, just scared.
Barnett arrives to bring Connie a present for standing in for his weakened wife - her manager notices that they are the flowers that were sent to Barbara Jean's hospital room by Connie. The "nice gesture" to Barbara Jean's arch-rival "don't seem to be appreciated" - Connie thanks the humiliated (and angered) Barnett but never takes the gift. The crass, phony singer is called to the stage where she sings "Rolling Stone." Triplette asks Haven whether Connie might appear at the rally - he responds decisively:
Connie White and Barbara Jean never appear on the same stage together. Connie can replace Barbara Jean. That's it. As for Haven Hamilton, well, I'll appear wherever Barbara Jean appears.
Bill worries more about Mary's unfaithfulness and his gut feelings prove later to be justified: "I think she's having an affair here. I really do."
The camera returns to Tom's hotel room with a familiar tie-in - it frames the revolving tape reels of his tape deck playing another of his performances: "Let Me Be Your Friend." A pan to the right focuses on Bill, Mary, and Tom's album cover and further over, the entwined bodies of Mary and Tom in bed. With a vacant, reverential stare on her face as she looks away into space, Mary rests her head on the womanizing rock star Tom's bare chest and repeatedly mouths the platitude: "I love you." [In a later scene, it appears that Mary has used Tom's mirror as a message board - red lipstick scrawls: "LOVE YOU"] The scene cuts from his long-haired, sleeping face to a colorful stained-glass church window of the messianic, long-haired Christ with a halo, staff, and small sheep in his arm, and captioned: "There shall be one fold and one shepherd" - a symbolic juxtaposition of sex and salvation.