Nashville brings country and western with a woman's voice

Female-driven drama is too rare, Nashville director Callie Khouri tells Sarah Hughes

We tend to picture Oscar winners in their moment of glory, waving the gold statue in triumph, giving the long-practised speech, at the top of their game. The world is now theirs, the thinking goes, whatever they want they will get.

The truth, as screenwriter and director Callie Khouri could tell you, is more prosaic. Khouri, now 55, was a 35-year-old novice when she won the 1992 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for female road movie Thelma & Louise. It was her first produced screenplay and in her memorable acceptance speech she held the award above her head and proudly declared: “For everyone who wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise: for me this is it.”

Viewers watching that evening might well have expected Khouri with her fresh voice and ability to write strong, believable female characters to spend the next 20 years becoming a regular at award ceremonies. The reality was less straightforward.

Khouri followed up Thelma & Louise by writing the Julia Roberts/Dennis Quaid drama Something to Talk About, a grown-up relationship drama directed by Lasse Hallstrom, which received mixed reviews but was described by The New York Times as “fresh enough to break the usual Hollywood mould”.

In 2002 she made her directorial debut with an adaptation of Rebecca Wells's bestseller about female friendship, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, following it up in 2008 with the ill-conceived and ill-received Mad Money, a broad comedy starring the unlikely trio of Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes. She also built a strong reputation as a script doctor, especially for those needing female characters to ring true.

Taken as a whole it's a solid career, albeit less glittering then you might have imagined, but now Khouri is the critics' darling once again thanks to her new television series, Nashville, which starts on More4 on Thursday.

The story of three very different country singers, Nashville has been widely praised. The Los Angeles Times described it as “bold, ambitious and fun” and Entertainment Weekly named it “the best new show of the year”. The praise was warranted: Nashville is a strong, vivid and, crucially, believable look at the country music industry in that town.

Like all of Khouri's best work it features interesting, fully rounded female characters as capable of doing bad as good. Most importantly, and in contrast to many female-centric dramas, it is neither melodrama nor knowingly kitsch soap but something more subtle and down to earth.

“It was important people didn't see it as a soap opera,” admits Khouri. “It's an adult drama about many aspects of life and it had to feel real. It's not about catfights and crazy plots.”

Instead, this tale of a fading country singer, a starlet on the make and a young, untapped talent treads its own path, rewarding viewers with a detailed insider's take on the industry that fuels Nashville along the way.

Connie Britton imbues fading star Rayna James with just the right mixture of waspish wit and warmth. She also crucially could pull off the earthy sexuality that's very much a Khouri trademark. “Most movie studios would say that female-driven movies aren't at the top of the list of films they want to make,” says Khouri. “Young female audiences like the Twilight crowd are important to them but they're not interested in the stories of grown women, and being an adult I am, so that kind of leaves me with…” She laughs. “Not a lot of choices, really.”

 

'Nashville' starts on 7 February at 10pm on More 4

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