Sunday, March 30, 2014
Lily Tomlin in Nashville
One of the largest virtues of Nashville is the way in which is balances characters of widely different tones. There are goofy characters, like the kooky Barbara Harris. There are tragic characters, like the endearing Gwen Welles. And then there is Lily Tomlin, acting as the calm center of the film in many ways. She plays Linnea, a gospel singer in a stagnant marriage to a big time music executive with whom she has two children, both of whom were born deaf. It's weird to see an actress as energetic and charismatic as Tomlin giving such a calm, quiet performance as this one but that is also the main reason why this performance really works. Gone is all the mugging that perpetuates her other performances, and in it's place is a beautiful and subtle simplicity. It's fortuitous that Tomlin recognized that this role needed a less heavy hand than usual, because there were many opportunities where she could have gone for bigger but decided not to. In a lot of ways Linnea is the most mysterious and guarded characters in the film, an average housewife who clearly loves her children and even her husband in an oblique way but has a hidden longing for something else in her life. Tomlin captures the plainness of the character by simply giving off a motherly normalcy in all her scenes. Free from any affectations or mannerisms, Lily Tomlin exudes naturalism and averageness.
The driving force in peeling back some of Linnea's layers comes in the form of Tom Frank (a ridiculously attractive Keith Carradine), a popular young folk singer who has come to Nashville in order to record a solo album after separating from his band. He remembers a time months back in which he met Linnea and decides to call her up and blatantly ask her on a date, with the full knowledge of her marital status. From that first phone call we begin to see the subtle ways in which Tomlin's Linnea becomes in touch with the desire and uncertainty stirring within her. At first she's a little oblivious, as any married mother would be, to this young man's hitting on her and it's amusing to watch her ask him over for lunch with the children multiple times, simply not getting it. But most of Tomlin's best work comes simply from the look in her eyes and the subtle expressions on her face. The amount of emotion she pours into each expression, often the same expression held for an extended period of time is astounding. It's subtle, but the longing and the conflict that comes with it is all displayed in her eyes. Her ability to express so much with so little outwards "acting" is a testament to the level of emotional complexity she pours into her role.
As the most guarded and mysterious character in the film, Tomlin often disappears for long periods of time only to pop back up after being invited to a club where Tom is performing some of his new songs. Her big scene comes when she's sitting in the back of the club while Tom performs "I'm Easy", a song he explicitly dedicates to her without even being sure she's in the audience. A little ways into the song he catches sight of her and proceeds to sing the rest of the song directly to her, which all the other patrons take notice of. The way in which Altman simply plants the camera pointing at Tomlin sitting in the back in plain view and allows her expression to say everything allows for some truly sublime acting. Tomlin keeps an even keel on her subtlety and allows her eyes to once again do all the heavy lifting, with that iconic expression that is both emotional and opaque in expressing this woman's realization that this man is singing to her. He could have any woman in the room but he wants her, and she doesn't understand it and doesn't know how to really process it all. It's the crowning moment of the performance, helped out greatly by the beautiful Oscar-winning song.
Linnea's final major scene is simply her and Tom in bed after their rendezvous, and we see the return of the reticent motherly type we got at the beginning of the film. Tomlin manages to keep Linnea's motivations and emotions a well-guarded secret throughout the film, and even as Tom tries to get her to stay a little longer with him she shoots down his advances with a the clarity of purpose that this average woman has had since the beginning. This isn't your typical Oscar-nominated performance in that Tomlin doesn't give a performance where you can see the acting happening onscreen. Her greatest strength is her reserve, and what results is a supple and powerful performance that doesn't need histrionics or mannerisms to convey everything that this woman feels. It all feels all the more real and moving because of it. 4.5/5 Thelmas.