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A Brief Celebration of Lily Tomlin in "Nashville"

Here's Andrew with one more Lily Tomlin tribute. Yes, yes, we got a little carried away for her 75th what with polls and memorabilia and now this. But that's because there's just so much to love and there's one exciting brand new project on the horizon - Nathaniel R

We can't let the celebration of Lily Tomlin pass without devoting just a few words to her excellent performance Nashville. Or, part of it. There are too many great things to say about Tomlin’s performance but let's zero in on a brief, but essential moment of Linnea Reese’s journey that’s always stuck. It's probably the first moment you think of when you hear the words Nashville and Lily Tomlin… the "I’m Easy” scene.

Nashville is many things, and a musical is one of them. Its Oscar-winning number “I’m Easy” arrives over two hours into the movie. From Carradine’s soft crooning, to the excellent lyrics, to Altman’s brilliant direction – it’s a great, tender moment of irony for the film. The rascal Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) dedicates this number to “someone special” in the audience and sings about how fragile his heart is, when it’s anything but. In performance the actual song becomes secondary to the reactions it evokes. There are three other women watching, in addition to Linnea, who are certain the song is about them, or hope that it could be.

 But even as all the actors are making this scene work it’s Tomlin’s Linnea that is most profound. It is her scene. I saw Nashville for the first time a few years ago and Linnea seemed so contradictory with the image that Lily Tomlin had always evoked, not because it's a dramatic role but because the essence of the performance is its stillness. That's not something easy to play, and often comes off as underacting. Not for Lily in this film, though, and especially not in this scene.

In a recurring shot Linnea sits somewhere near the edge of the frame looking desolate, surrounded by the rest of the audience. It's a wonder how just watching her reaction evokes such strong feelings. She may not be the only woman responding to Tom's "I'm Easy" lies, but even as she remains still there’s an electricity to her. Altman wisely let's the camera be drawn to her.

This gospel singer and mother of two deaf children doesn’t utter a single word and yet when the final note is sung we’ve learned so much. Just look at that face! Every longing desire, every hope, every secret lustful thought climaxes here. That she and Tom will come together some time after is inevitable. It’s a brief bit in the gargantuan excellence that is Nashville's 160 minutes and but a drop in the greatness of the enduring Lily Tomlin, but essential nonetheless.

previous Lily enthusiasms
Rose vs Sadie Big Business 
Memoirs of an Usherette Lily's history of loving the movies 
Jane & Lily reunited for Netflix 

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Reader Comments (7)

Just watched this, and obviously this is a great, great moment, but I realized my very favorite moment of hers is her first - singing, clapping, dancing and laughing (!) with the choir in the sound booth.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

There are so many great moments in this movie, but the I'm Easy one is the peak of the film in my opinion. The second one might be the very end when the "fickle finger of fate" (to quote Lily's first big job) lands on Barbara Harris of all people.

I remember Lily's moment in the movie because it feels like real life. So much is going on around you, so many stories that you may or may not be part of, and then the moment of impact in your life (you only get a handful) hits you out of the blue. And hits the audience.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

This is one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies. The performances, music, directing and editing are all superb.

Altman was great at bringing seemingly strange, otherwise difficult to cast women to life; Lily is one of them.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I realize this is heresy here at TFE, but I just never have gotten this movie. Though I find it interesting and I love some of the performances, the whole just doesn't add up. It leaves me cold. I've seen it twice, and I just don't think I can watch this yet again.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I also love that scene and you describe it perfectly. I guess the strange power of brief moments like that can explain why we all went crazy for the movies at a certain point.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This scene is just A+ for me and the film is right around there as well. Tomlin sells the hell out of it.

I rewatched it last month when I got it on Criterion and it's still as amazing as the first few times I saw on TCM yeeeeaaars ago. That ending is all kinds of genius. The way that Albuquerque is finally allowed to sing, what she picks, who stays and who leaves, the faces in the crowd, what Altman is saying about the American attitude when faced with immediate political tragedy, the pan out wide shot, ugh so good.

[insert oblig comment on how Tomlin was robbed and Grant's win was based on other lame factors besides her nothing performance]

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Mark the First: one of the all-time great endings. Every single character is reacting so perfectly. When Private Kelly leaves I tend to lose it. And the song is saying so many things so cleverly, ironically and beautifully.
Also one of the all-time great opening credits sequences.

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

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