Raising the Stakes

Notes on Performance in Some Films by Robert Altman

A significant number of Robert Altman’s films are set in or around the world of the arts. The episodic structure of Nashville (1975) unfolds against the backdrop of the country music industry and the American bicentennial. The Company (2003) is a slice of the life of a Chicago ballet company, experienced through the perspective of a young dancer.

Even in the films that are not about the arts there are often characters who are artists, and their art comes into play in the film, either to delineate character or at a crucial point in the plot. In Gosford Park, Altman’s 2001 ensemble piece set in the British countryside, a real-life entertainer and film star, Ivor Novello, is present at key points in the story. Several of the characters in Short Cuts (1993), Altman’s sprawling compilation of Raymond Carver stories are either visual or performing artists.

In backstage musicals like Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly, 1952), A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954) and All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979), the songs and production numbers are occasionally part of a show being put on by the characters in the movie. More often, though, they are like the numbers in traditional musicals, such as Oklahoma! (Fred Zinneman, 1955), where the characters break into song and dance in the middle of otherwise realistic scenes.

In Altman’s films, both those set in the world of the arts and those in which art is ancillary, the music and dance performances are part of a “show” within the movie, and they serve several functions.

Gosford Park is a study of the layers of class in British society in the 1920s, with clear divisions between upstairs and downstairs, the aristocracy and the servants. Jeremy Northam plays entertainer Ivor Novello.

“How do you manage to put up with these people?” asks American film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban). “You forget, I earn my living by impersonating them,” replies Novello while playing the piano. Though wealthy and famous, Novello is clearly seen by the older aristocrats as a worker, not worthy of their station. As such, there is an expectation that he perform for them. Even as he does so, some of them continue to show their disdain for him.

As he sings and plays, Altman cuts from room to room in the mansion that serves as the film’s setting. The volume of the music is as it would be in the room being shown. That is, the farther away from the room in which Novello is singing, the softer and more muted the music. Not coincidentally, those who are taking the most direct pleasure in the music are those who are farthest away: a group of servants are seen dancing, even though the music is barely audible.

Musical performance has a prominent place in Short Cuts, though it is usually in the background. Earl Piggot (Tom Waits) is at a jazz club, trying to listen to Tess (Annie Ross) sing. Other customers in the club, led by Joe Robbins (Darnell Williams), carry on a conversation at normal volume levels. Earl is intimidated and eventually backs off, and both the music and the conversation continue, while Tess is oblivious.

A particularly poignant narrative arc concerns the conflict between an intense cellist (Lori Singer) and her aunt, who happens to be Tess. As Zoe practices a difficult Bach movement, Tess badgers her about her music, her playing, and her life in general. From the beginning, Zoe’s playing has a rapt intensity, which only grows under her aunt’s withering abuse.

Later, Zoe practices Stravinsky, the lyrical “Berceuse” from The Firebird. Tess tells Zoe of her difficult night singing at the club, and Zoe only stops when Tess tells the story of an overdose of a former lover. Instead of being a medium of communication, music is a chasm, keeping the two women separate.

In The Company, young dancer Ry (Neve Campbell) is poised to move from the rank-and-file to the role of a principal dancer. One of the important steps on her journey is a duo set to “My Funny Valentine,” performed by Ry and a male dancer (Domingo Rubio) in Grant Park at the beginning of a thunderstorm.

Altman shows the performance from a range of perspectives. We see it as the audience sees it, as the musicians see it, from above (we can see the dancers’ marks on the floor), from behind (we can see the audience and the lightening in the distance) and from backstage. The performance is rendered as the work and effort that it is.

Like most of the performances of music and dance in Altman’s films, this one, though it is an important moment early in the career of a promising dancer, is not built up to like a big game in a sports movie. It is given as part of the course of events in the life of an artist. It’s what they do: make art.

It’s a pivotal scene in Nashville : folk-rockers Tom, Bill, & Mary have just completed an impromptu late night song at one of the many music clubs in Nashville. Tom (Keith Carradine) remains on stage to perform a new song he had written. The rest of the band (already strained due to Tom’s affair with Mary, who is married to Bill) doesn’t know of the existence of the song, “I’m Easy,” which Tom dedicates to a woman he hopes will be in the crowd that evening.

As Tom sings the song, a ballad in which the singer claims to be willing to follow the lead of the woman he is singing to, his gaze becomes fixed on the woman. Three other women, Mary (Christina Raines), BBC reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), and L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) believe he is singing to them. The woman he really is singing to, housewife and white gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin), knows she is the one, and the pained, resigned look on her face tells she knows what she’s going to do and that she will regret it.

As the song progresses, Altman cuts from character to character. Mary, Opal, and L.A. Joan are shown in the foreground, confident they are the subject of Tom’s song. Linnea, on the other hand, is shown isolated in the background, the audience members in the foreground out-of-focus. Finally, after Tom’s gaze is fixed on Linnea, the other women turn to look at her as they realize who he is singing for. The camera slowly puls closer to Linnea as the song ends, and the applause begins. Linnea is seduced, and applause (and music) from the next scene begins. In that scene, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), an aspiring singer, is pressured into performing a strip tease at a political fundraiser. The overlapping of the sound of the scenes unites the experience of the women in subtle and powerful ways.

Throughout Nashville, housewife/wife-on-the-run/singer Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) searches for a way to break in to the music business. She hangs out at the clubs and the Grand Old Opry, trying to sneak in to get someone’s attention. She sings in the infield of the Speedway during the stock car races on Sunday afternoon, inaudible above the din and wildly gesticulating.

At the end of the film, all of the characters gather at Nashville’s replica of the Parthenon for a concert/political rally. When the reigning Queen and King of country music-Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) and Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson)-are shot, a dazed Hamilton implores “somebody sing.” He gives a microphone to Albuquerque, who tentatively begins to sing a song called “It Don’t Worry Me.” She soon sees this as the opportunity she has been waiting for and gives everything she has to the performance. As the crowd sings with her and claps to the music, it is clear she is on her way to stardom as the movie ends.

Altman has directed stage plays and opera. He is intimately familiar with a critical difference between performance in film and live performance in front of an audience. Live performance is a tightrope act. The more intense and personal the performance, the more chance there is for something to go wrong and the performance to fall apart. That element is not a part of film, though certainly performances in film can fail. Someone may be miscast or not have the ability to do the role they’ve been given.

Few of the actors in these scenes are known for music or dance: Altman’s films are often the first time an actor performs as a singer or dancer. In Nashville , in fact, most of the actors perform songs they wrote, as is the case with Carradine and “I’m Easy.” (The Company is an exception: Neve Campbell was a professional dancer, and the ballets are danced by the Joffrey company.)

Most music performances in film are recorded beforehand, with the performers miming along to these pre-recorded songs on the set. Altman instead uses the performances that occur during shooting. In this way Altman introduces live performance tension into film.

By introducing this element of risk into the performances, Altman is raising the stakes for himself, his actors, and for the audience itself. His methods in this area expand the medium of film, giving it some of the immediacy of live performance. This immediacy is part and parcel of his aesthetic. The famously over-lapping dialogue, the reversal of traditional foreground and background in staging (wherein the “main” conversation in a scene is in the background and a secondary conversation or action is in the foreground), and the “objective” placement of cameras in a scene (his detractors often say his films look like a camera is set down randomly and the action allowed to take place in front of it) all add to this unusual immediacy.

Altman is known as a director who places a great deal of faith in his actors and who gives them wide leeway in constructing their performances. By allowing them to stretch themselves beyond the acting they are known for, Altman often elicits from performers their finest work. His films are richer for that, and so is the experience of the moviegoer.