By Andrea Meyer
There’s no mistaking a Robert Altman film. Whether the great director is turning a genre inside out, like he did in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” or “The Long Goodbye,” or investigating the dark nooks and crannies of a subculture, like Hollywood in “The Player,” a ballet troupe in “The Company” or the British aristocracy and the people who serve them in “Gosford Park,” we recognize his sprawling, ensemble casts making their way through interconnected narratives and captured in snippets by an eavesdropping camera, all of which endow films like “Nashville” and “Short Cuts” with a scope rarely seen on screen.
The latest microcosm Altman has taken on is a homegrown radio show based on the real one “A Prairie Home Companion” created and hosted by Garrison Keillor, who wrote the screenplay. The fictional show is not nationally syndicated like Keillor’s, but a small-town variety show performed in a beautiful old theater, and it’s is about to be shut down. The movie begins on the day the guillotine is scheduled to fall. With a wistful air hanging over the proceedings, the regulars perform as if it were just another day. The Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) belt out country duets, while singing cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) do naughty ditties. GK, played by Keillor, emcees. Thrown into the mix is Yolanda’s death-obsessed daughter (Lindsay Lohan) who’s finally getting a crack at a song, Kevin Kline’s Guy Noir, a private detective who runs security, Tommy Lee Jones as the dreaded Axeman from the Texas company purchasing the theater, and Virginia Madsen a mysterious angel floating about sweetly suggesting sinister things to come.
As always, Altman’s camera takes it all in, the main attraction on stage and the seemingly extraneous conversations, gestures and glances that weave together to create a tapestry of nostalgia, music, laughter, camaraderie, and the sadness and panic of having to let go, Altman at his most purely enjoyable.
“I couldn’t wait to get to work,” Madsen said while in New York promoting the film. “It didn’t matter if I had anything to say. I would just come and see if I could insinuate myself or just sit behind Bob and watch him directÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ Everyone was always creating.”
Part of what actors appreciate on an Altman set is a looseness about their characters and what is expected of them. Kevin Kline, in particular, had some questions about his character, Guy Noir, a regular on Keillor’s show. “I asked Bob, ‘You know, he’s the only one who’s completely delusional. He thinks he’s in a film noir in the 40s. Is it that he [is] one of those marginal showbiz people on the fringes who wants to be onstage and thinks he would be better than any of them? Or is he one of these guys who’s really a doorman but had an accident?’ He just said, ‘Well, he’s a nut!'” Kline recalled. “That was the kind of dialogue I’d have with him probing, deep. But he would always give directions that would open a door for you to go intoÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ He doesn’t have a shot designed and then, ‘Come put your performance into my shot.’ It’s give and take between the camera and the actor.”
That kind of space also allows the actors to play around with the script, a possibility that Kline has relished throughout his career, famously on “A Fish Called Wanda,” which he compared to “Prairie.” “In both cases the writer was right there, and I think it must be that little class buffoon subversive little imp in me that just loves not being reverent and defying authority in a very passive-aggressive way. I refuse to say the lines that they’ve written while they’re standing right there,” he said. “I did a scene with John Cleese, and he was like (in his best Cleesian accent), ‘You are really not going to say one line that I’ve written, are you?'”
Surprisingly, Kline suggested that it was Streep who first suggested to him that a script could be stretched and tailored to fit the actor better, when they first worked together on Alan Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice,” Kline’s first film, 24 years ago. “Only the most confident directors encourage you to play around with the script, make it your own,” Streep said. “It was just a thing that would encourage freedom and creativity.”
While most actors were fairly faithful to the script they loved, even Keillor was flexible.
“The screenwriter was on the set at all times. The script police were there,” he said when asked how he felt about people messing with his baby. “But there were still a few. You can’t really put a lid on Lily, and Kevin does a lot of improvisation, but the rest stayed pretty close to the script.”
While Streep and Tomlin only knew each other peripherally before production began, they fell quickly into their roles as the last two remaining singers in a four-sister act that began when they were children. In no time, the two actors were singing their hearts out, finishing each other’s sentences remember their homage to Altman at the Oscars? and speaking in perfect, singsong Midwestern accents about improv, awards ceremonies and beautiful Minnesota skies. Here’s a sample:
Tomlin: The regional US accents are more available to you.
Streep: They’re more in your body.
Tomlin: It’s a rhythmic thing. Once you get into it, you’re fine.
Streep: It more about cadence and music…There are plenty of people who have a Wisconsin accent and don’t have a certain lilt and an optimism and that’s Yolanda. People just hear the accent, but I think it’s something more interior.
Tomlin: It won’t be any good if it’s not.
Streep: Rhonda, it’s more about cigarettes and trying to quit, trying to quit, trying to quit, and her voice is located down here with her rage and her realism…
Tomlin: I didn’t know that, darn it. In the script, we had auditioned for the Lawrence Welk show, the four little sisters, and my character is still bitter, like fifty years later, because they were more talented than the Lenin sisters, and she’s never gotten over it.
Streep: And the Lenin sisters were communists.
Tomlin: Yeah, the Lenin sisters were commies, right.
Streep: That was in our script.
Tomlin: I hate to see that gone. Of course Yolanda’s so nice and massaging everything I’m saying and saying it’s not that bad and they’re not communistsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
The actors unanimously said the feel-good feeling is tough to beat on an Altman set. “There was always something going on,” said Madsen. “Everyone always wanted to be there. It’s not like that on many films. Sometimes it can be more stressful. Sometimes you just get to the hotel bar. But this one you wanted to be there. It’s very rare to have that much of a thrill.”
“A Prairie Home Companion” is currently in theaters (official site).