Ronee Blakley plays the role of Barbara Jean, a beloved country singer who returns to Nashville after recovering from a burn accident. Barbara Jean is a challenging part, in more ways than one: not only it requires a great voice, screen-presence and charisma, but also requires the ability to come off as a genuinely good-hearted, entirely selfless person without coming across as unbelievable and/or bland. Thankfully, Ronee Blakley delivers an absolutely first-rate performance that meets every demand of the role - she simply becomes Barbara Jean, realizing her both as a three-dimensional, fully-fleshed character and the symbol she is supposed to represent. Whereas Lily Tomlin's Linnea Reese served as the movie's most human and relatable character, Barbara Jean is always shot and presented at a certain distance - she's an almost otherwordly presence, a pure product of the musical enviroinment (and a victim of it) that deeply moves us even though Altman never allows us to get too close, a decision that ends up making the character all the more fascinating and haunting.
Barbara Jean's first appearence into the movie is preceded by a certain build-up, and she certainly does not disappoint: she dominates the screen in a way that never once feels overbearing. She possesses a unique, luminous radiance that makes her status as Nashville's sweetheart not only believable but almost obvious. But most importantly she manages to make Barbara Jean's sweetness feel completely sincere: she brings such a lovely amount of grace and honesty to the character you never once think that her kindness is a put on. Barbara Jean is the personification of pure goodness and Blakley manages to embody perfectly the quality of this character without ever turning her into a one-dimensional presence - she is both a representation of goodness while also being a layered, believable character. Regarding the musical part of her performance, it's always a real treat to watch her perform: not only she has a wonderful singing voice but she also has a truly captivating presence that makes her musical numbers particularly remarkable. It's in the singing scenes that her Barbara Jean truly seems alive - she simply lights up the screen and gives an impression of ease and confidence, two qualities that are utterly lacking (and rightly so) in Blakley's portrayal in the more intimate scenes. By listening to the songs' lyrics, that Blakley wrote herself, you can really understand the actress' understanding of Barbara Jean and her commitment to the role: she adds a lot of complexity to the character with the songs and also creates a history for her. With "My Idaho Home" she gives a whole backstory to her and she sings the song with a moving degree of nostalgia and fondness for her family. She also delivers in her performance of "Dues", which feels painfully real and heartbreaking considering Barbara Jean's own troubled relationship with her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield).
We first get a true glimpse of Barbara Jean's emotional instability after she collapses while going to greet some fans. Her following scenes at the hospital are heartbreakingly well-played as Blakley does not lose the graceful gentleness of the character's "public" moments but she feels much more pale, uneasy and unsure than when she is on stage performing. Blakley strikingly deprives Barbara Jean of her charismatic presence in those scenes, instead she just portrays her as a fragile, lost soul that receives no help from everyone around her. Blakley is extremely moving in her portrayal of Barbara Jean's turmoil and nails each of the emotional beats in her performance as the character grows progressively closer to a nervous breakdown. I particularly like her scene at the hospital with Garfield, with the two actors doing an especially effective job at portraying their characters' strained relationship: on his own, Garfield is very good at portraying both a genuine concern and a certain degree of cruelty in his treatment of his wife, while Blakley is touching in her portrait of Barbara Jean's helplessness as she is manipulated by her husband. But the crowning moment of her performance is most definitely her nervous breakdown on stage, where she starts telling disjointed, random stories before being escorted off stage: it's an extremely tricky scenes that Blakley solves with surprising ease, naturally portraying her character's growing unease as her rambling becomes more and more confused while still using the scene to add yet other layers to the character and further exploring her life before the events of the movie.
Barbara Jean could have been a one-dimensional character, a mere martyr inside the twisted world of Nashville. But Ronee Blakley manages to give an absolutely marvelous performance that metts all the challenge of this difficult role, making Barbara Jean the sort of iconic figure she is supposed to be while also delivering a layered portrait of the emotionally unstable, desperate person that lies beneath. It's an amazing performance that is key to the overall success of the movie.