Women supporting women was the main topic of conversation Wednesday night at the Tennessee premiere of Lifetime’s new film, “Patsy & Loretta,” held south of Nashville at the Franklin Theater. Starring Megan Hilty (“Smash”) as Patsy Cline and Jessie Mueller (Tony-nominated for “Waitress” and a winner for “Beautiful”) as Loretta Lynn — pictured above, with their wax counterparts — the film shines a spotlight on the friendship that formed between them before Cline’s untimely death in a plane crash in 1963.
Director Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning writer of “Thelma and Louise” and creator of the ABC/CMT series “Nashville,” has a history of creating powerful narratives around strong women. “I think the story of women’s friendships has never been told in enough depth,” the filmmaker told Variety at the premiere. “For women to be helping each other back when everybody thought that there was only one slot, to see somebody like Patsy Cline reach out to a young up-and-comer like Loretta and see the long career that Loretta had — those are stories I think we need to be telling for each other.”
Executive producer Neil Meron draws a line from the experiences Lynn and Cline faced in the ’60s to the modern day, noting that while other genres already had breakout female acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, country was in need of its own, with Cline and Lynn filling that void. “They were there to basically break their own glass ceiling in Nashville,” Meron said before the premiere. “To cite the era that we’re living in — which is all about women speaking up, defending themselves, getting what they want and being believed — the roots go back to what Patsy and Loretta did and have to face as they were rising to their various myriads of fame. Uncovering this story is really good timing.”
While the pair’s individually trailblazing careers have been covered in the ’80s films “Sweet Dreams” (starring Jessica Lange as Cline) and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (which earned Sissy Spacek an Academy Award for her portrayal of Lynn), their deep friendship has gone largely unknown. In the two-hour Lifetime flick — which was shot in Nashville at the pair’s frequent haunts, including Cline’s dream home just outside of the city — Cline is already an established star when she begins mentoring Lynn at the start of her career in the early 1960s.
In a post-screening panel discussion, Hilty said she was a fan of both Cline and Lynn before filming but like many, was unaware of their friendship. Deciding not to watch “Sweet Dreams” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she instead drew inspiration by reading letters written by Cline and gathering research through the people who knew her, learning that the star was a mentor to several other female country contemporaries, too, including Dottie West and June Carter Cash. Her portrayal of the icon sees her as a strong, confident businesswoman who looks over Lynn’s contracts and forces a concert booker to pay her in cash ahead of a performance.
Mueller, who signed on only weeks before production began, was familiar with Cline’s music but not Lynn’s. Her process involved going into a “deep listening dive” in Lynn’s catalogue, enamored by songwriting that included such staples as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and spoke openly about birth control and the stigma of divorce through “The Pill” and “Rated X.”
But the anchor of the film is the friendship that quickly formed between two female artists trying to navigate through the good old boys’ club of country music. For screenwriter Angelina Burnett, the story of women supporting one another was sorely lacking on screen, with beloved films such as “All About Eve” and “Working Girl” building the trope of the aspiring young star who must overthrow her female superior in order to succeed.
“It’s this myth in our culture that there’s only room for one woman at the top and I saw in this friendship an incredible opportunity to tell a story about women in the same profession, the height of their skill, taking care of each other. That’s what I cared most about,” Burnett said to applause from the packed theater.
Another important plotline Burnett integrated into the script under Khouri’s direction is that of being a working mother. Cline had two children when she was soaring up the charts with “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” while Lynn was a mother of six during the height of her career. (Cline’s daughter Julie Fudge and Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell are co-producers of the film.) Burnett was intent on conveying the pain both stars felt having to leave their children to perform for roughly 300 days a year, particularly in the scene when Cline boards the doomed plane in an attempt to quickly return home to her family. “That note that Callie gave me rippled through the whole script and I did a whole new path, every chance I could and every scene I could, to lift up that feeling — that pull of being a mom who has to leave,” Burnett said.
Burnett remarked that it’s “shocking” how difficult it still is for women to break through in the music industry, especially country music, where the conversation continues to swirl around the lack of airplay women receive on radio. But she believes that as women continue to support one another, so will the stories around them. “I do think that the slow accumulation of these kinds of stories starts to shift our mentality about ourselves,” she said. “Right now, women are pushing against so much in the wake of [Harvey] Weinstein. We’ve sort of had this explosion of rage and now it’s like, ‘Well, what do we do with it?’ And I think the answer is we take care of each other.”
“Patsy & Loretta” premieres on Lifetime on Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. ET.