Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ronee Blakley in Nashville

Ronee Blakley received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's Nashville.

Among the kaleidoscope of players in Altman's crowded (in a good way) narrative, many argue that Blakley's Barbara Jean is the central figure of the film. Barbara Jean is the current sweetheart of country music (at least partially based on Loretta Lynn), who is returning to Nashville after suffering a "burn accident", hinted to be a cover for something a little more psychological in nature. The rest of the characters sort of orbits around her, with essentially everyone coming into contact with her at some point, even if just in passing. However, as central as Barbara Jean's presence is to the narrative, I wouldn't categorize this as a lead performance simply because Blakley has such a fleeting, ethereal presence even in her big moments, and the entire character feels like such an tragic chess piece in a larger game that is both Nashville (the film) and Nashville (the city/country music scene).

If there is a driving quality in Blakley's performance it's a transparent and vulnerable sincerity--everything about Barbara Jean is so thoroughly earnest no matter how much she tries otherwise. From the first moment she appears onscreen, wearing a flowy white dress and a pink ribbon in her hair, she wins over the crowds waiting to greet her with a simple sweetness and true star power. Barbara Jean is purposefully dressed as angelically as possible, and the innocence constantly on display is what makes the eventual trajectory of this performance so impossibly moving. We watch in horror as Blakley peels back the layers of Barbara Jean's innocence and unveils the unbelievable toll stardom takes on those graced with possessing it. There's a loss of self apparent in all of her non-singing scenes, where we watch as she struggles with consolidating the commercial enterprise her husband has morphed her into and the very real root of where she comes from. Everything about her life has been so thought out and orchestrated without her input, that it's reached the point of Barbara Jean barely even existing anymore as an individual entity.

Blakely conveys this all with a very raw, amateurish acting style that highlights just how far gone Barbara Jean is and how deeply she seems to be fighting to get that back, only to meet resistance and push back from her husband and those around her. Each and every time Barbara Jean is in public she puts on the mask of the country sweetheart, sincerely shaking hands and showing interest in all those around her expertly like a trained show horse. But the cracks inevitably begin to show and Blakley's demeanor becomes more cloudy and even childish, and we watch Barbara Jean experience a mental breakdown wherein she becomes scatterbrained and fragile. This happens only twice in the film, once in a hospital scene with her husband and once on stage. Still, these two moments cut deeply and put you on pins and needles for the rest of her performance waiting for the other shoe to drop. Blakely often goes big in these moments, but thankfully not so big as to lose the emotion of the moments. Once again the rawness of Blakely as an actress comes in handy in these moments, as her freshness as an actress and lack of trained artifice enhances the power of these scenes, where a more experienced actress might approach it with a well-honed style and mannerisms all their own.

All of Blakley's acting moments rang mostly true for me, but where the performance really elevates to greatness is in the moments in which Barbara Jean performs on stage. Her musical numbers are among the most moving and heartbreaking I've ever seen, and that's all due to the powerful voice and Blakely's acting ability during these performances. She has four separate songs, each sung beautifully with her deep husky tone and all but one written by Blakley herself. Two in particular stand out as important, powerhouse moments in this performance. The first is "Dues", a song in which Blakley sings about a broken marriage, which we can clearly link back to her shattered marriage to her controlling husband It's an absolutely heartbreaking song, performed with such authentic emotional both in her vocals and acting. The conflicted emotions on display are utterly bare for the world to see. The other important song is at the climax of the film, where she sings "My Idaho Home" all about her roots and family back home. We see the origins of Barbara Jean's musical talent before she became corrupted by stardom and the industry. This the primary effect all of her songs have--we see the real Barbara Jean come out most prominently in her songs, filled with emotion and history, only for her to disappear when they are over. The depth of emotion poured into each song is staggering, and undoubtedly it helps that Blakely wrote these songs herself--there's a tangible personal attachment to each.

Over the course of what amounts of only a few brief scenes and five gorgeous musical numbers, Ronee Blakley gives an epic performance of a woman broken down by the music industry, so much so that just about all that is left is a blank, earnest sincerity. The raw amateurishness of her acting style imbues this ethereal, fleeting shell of a woman with directness and an open vulnerability. Her contributions as a songwriter cannot be overlooked--as without those gorgeous songs her character would merely be a tragic cipher, as they add so much rich context and history to her performance that comes with personal experience and passion. This is an utterly unique performance, mixing over the top breakdowns, glassy blankness, and deeply felt pathos with a musicality that somehow ends up working to beautiful effect. 5/5 Thelmas.


Alex in Movieland said...

well hello there... :) welcome back.

I remember liking this performance quite a lot. Seems like the natural winner.

Allen said...

Beautifully written as always :D

Your words definitely make me want to check her out!

Derek Bowman said...

@Alex My rating for both the Nashville girls fluctuated between 4-5 for awhile but Ronee was pretty much always my pick. She's just great and unique.

@Allen Thanks :) I highly highly highly recommend Nashville. It's legit become one of my favorite movies, and I was not really looking forward to it. Watch it :)