Ronee Blakley had what you might call a pretty good year in 1975.
She starred in “Nashville,” a career-defiing role as country music superstar Barbara Jean that many critics regard as director Robert Altman’s high-water mark. Her performance earned her a nomination as Best Supporting Actress. She also sang backing vocals on the song “Hurricane,” which endueres as one of Bob Dylan’s most admired songs. That fall, Blakley accompanied Dylan and many others on his infamous Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Oh yeah — she also appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “This is Ronee Blakley’s first movie, and she puts most movie hysteria to shame. She achieves her gifts so simply, I wasn’t surprised when somebody sitting beside me started to cry. Perhaps, for the first time on the screen, one gets the sense of an artist being destroyed by her gifts.”
Blakley is soon bringing out a new EP “Songs of Love” and a film called “Of One Blood” with a soundtrack album, and is participating on the documentary of making of Nashville, alongside the rerelease by Criterion Collection.
In addition, Blakley will follow the likes of Allan Ginsberg and Patti Smith into the legendary poet’s venue Beyond Baroque in Venice, Calif., for a solo evening of spoken word, song, and performance art called “Poems and Songs of Love” on Dec. 13 (beginning at 8:00 p.m.).
Ronee Blakley is an articulate, sensitive observer of the machinations of the entertainment industry. I asked Ronee, whom I have interviewed in the past, to reflect a little on her breakthrough film.
Indiewire: Tell us about the moment when you were cast in Nashville.
“I remember him standing in the doorway of my room at the Spence in Nashville, then walking into it a few steps. I remember my small suitcase on the desk. He looked at it and asked if that’s all I had with me, and I said yes, and he said it showed I was organized. He said he had decided to cast me in his movie. I said thank you. And then he left.”
Indiewire: How did you prepare for the movie?
“I looked and I listened. When I went to sing at the Opry backing up Hoyt Axton, Dolly Parton was on the bill and I studied her, spoke to her, she asked me what I would like to hear, and I told her Jolene, and then she went onstage and sang it. She was wearing a fluffy dress and a country wig, not like the ones she wears today. I also hung out one evening with Loretta Lynn and called Tammy Wynettte’s manager, and practiced my character on the street.”
Indiewire: Did you know you were making a classic movie?
“Yes, I did think it was going to be great, all the work was so good, every actor was inspired, and Altman’s team was intensely competent, and he was that rare kind of genius who knows what works and what doesn’t at the moment it is happening.”
Indiewire: What was it like to experience such sudden fame?
“It can only happen to you once, and it happened to me for Andy’s fifteen minutes. I reacted the same way everyone else does – I went off half cocked for awhile, though wouldn’t have admitted it at the time because I was trying so hard and thought I had it together.”
Indiewire: What is your fondest memory of “Nashville?”
“Working with Altman, the high of flying without a net, the feeling of being appreciated and used, so that my capabilities were not wasted; writing, singing, acting, decorating my sets with things I bought, developing character, (yes, he allowed that, and then asked the others to do it too), helping with casting, Vassar Clements, (Ry Cooder said no), helping with locations like The Pickin Parlor, then add the comeraderie of the cast, hanging out with Gwen Welles in our rented Ford, coaching her singing.”