The last radio show

A 1970s hero meets up with an NPR icon, while a 1970s shocker is revived for Generation Da Vinci

| June 07, 2006
Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan in A Prairie Home Companion - PHOTO BY MELINDA SUE GORDON
  • Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon
  • Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan in A Prairie Home Companion

Accepting an honorary career-achievement Academy Award on this year's Oscar show, Robert Altman revealed that he had undergone a heart transplant not long ago. The comment caused a bit of a stir, since news of the filmmaker's operation had been closely guarded. Naturally, the revelation prompted thoughts not only of the octogenarian director's remarkable resiliency, but also of his mortality.

Do intimations of the great beyond mellow an artist's temperament? That was something I wondered going into Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, a fictional movie based on Garrison Keillor's popular radio show. Wondering about the director's possible mellowing was, of course, a way of wondering what kind of movie I was about to see.

For going on four decades, Altman has arguably been the American cinema's most incisive and acerbic satirist, and his targets have encompassed not only American society's abundant foolishness and foibles but, more specifically, the popular media and cultural forms that propagate those delusions: everything from private-eye and war films and westerns to country music and politics and even the health and fashion industries.

Given that track record, it occurred to me that this latest Altman might enclose a skewering--however sly and indirect--of its nominal subject, a vision of the NPR ethos and audience as unflattering as Nashville's was of the capital of pickin' 'n' grinnin'. As it turns out, though, this cinematic Prairie Home Companion is no snarky sneak attack on the radio institution. And yet I'm not sure that mellowing has anything to do with the film's light, appreciative tone.

The crucial factor, no doubt, is that the movie originated with Keillor, who is credited with the screenplay. Reportedly, the writer-performer set out to create a film and saw Altman as the ideal director from early on. Not only did he manage to convince Altman--who says he's a fan of the show--to enlist, but all indications suggest that as Keillor's script progressed, he increasingly saw (and wrote) it as an Altman film.

The result is a movie that, though it lacks something of Altman's characteristic bite, represents a generous and smooth merging of the two artists' sensibilities. By no means is this simply A Prairie Home Companion transferred to film. Though the movie bears the radio show's name, Keillor has cleverly placed several yards of fictional distancing between the real show and the radio show we see on screen.

The real show, of course, has several million listeners and is heard on stations coast to coast. The fictional show is also staged in the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., but it has been on the air, we're told, "since Jesus was in the third grade," and now has an audience of only a few hundred on one local station. What's more, the theater has been bought by a Texas corporation that plans to turn it into a parking lot, so the performance we witness will be the radio show's last stand.

Along with this droll mixture of the real and the fanciful, Keillor--who, naturally, plays the fictional show's host--mixes characters from the actual show with others made up for the movie, and performers from the show (including the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band) with big-name film actors: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin appear as singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, with Lindsay Lohan essaying Yolanda's suicide-minded daughter Lola; Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play singing cowpokes Dusty and Lefty; Kevin Kline incarnates private eye/security man Guy Noir; Virginia Madsen is a mysterious woman in white; and Tommy Lee Jones oozes in late in the story as the Texas corporation's "axe man."

Interestingly--and, I think, wisely--Keillor dispenses with many of his show's trademark catchphrases and comic reference points. If memory serves, there's nary a mention of Lake Wobegon or a description of its citizenry. Instead, the story, such as it is, is carried largely by the almost nonstop musical performances, and these are constantly intercut with various comic mini-dramas that play out around the radio show's margins.

This steady amalgamation of onstage action and backstage shenanigans gives the film a feel very akin to the kaleidoscopic comic ensemble structures of most Altman films. Thus it's hardly a surprise that the director's familiar style, with its use of overlapping dialogue and cameras that are almost always simultaneously tracking and zooming, seems to fit right in. A bit more surprising is that Altman's puckish brand of absurdism--even though here it's less caustic than usual--blends so easily with Keillor's more whimsical and homespun variety.

Altman's genial touch with actors is evident throughout, and sometimes the results are funny in ways that may not have been intended. Or was it my imagination that Lily Tomlin seemed crotchety beyond the call of duty, as if in response to the scene-stealing, sublimely over-the-top performance that Meryl Streep gives right beside her?

In any case, the cast's big revelation is Keillor himself. I've never been a big listener or fan of his work on radio, but on film Keillor has a presence and skill (including his excellent singing) that are engaging and impressive throughout. Even better, he doesn't seem to have set himself up to be the star of the show. He's just one more player--but, happily, the best.

A Prairie Home Companion recalls Jonathan Demme's recent Heart of Gold, starring Neil Young and shot at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Both works take the concert-film premise and transmute it into something more cinematic and meaningfully expansive. And while they could be described as tributes by a filmmaker to the veteran performer he records, it would be more accurate to say that they are felicitous and well-matched collaborations, in which the performer also pays tribute to the filmmaker--and we are lucky enough to witness the spark of their mutual inspiration.



The nanny from hell, played by Rosemary's Baby star Mia Farrow, takes good care of little Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). - PHOTO COURTESY OF 20TH CENTURY FOX

I'm not sure why I missed Richard Donner's 1976 supernatural shocker The Omen (I also skipped its various sequels), but I'd guess that by the time it came along, well after The Exorcist and its many knock-offs, I was suffering from supernatural shocker burnout. No matter how appealing the idea of seeing the Antichrist himself incarnated as a malevolent preschooler named Damien might sound, I was fried on the genre.

As for why I might willingly go see the film's current remake, two reasons bounce to mind immediately. First, the fact that Donner's original starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick was one thing that made it seem yawn-inducing at the time; for years Hollywood had been humiliating its fading icons by casting them in cheesy horror films (the last quarter of Bette Davis' career is comprised of little but such shrill screamfests). But look at the cast of this new Omen: Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Pete Postlethwaite.

That's more the lineup of a smart transatlantic art film than a bloated summer horror retread. Granted, I was sorry they missed the chance to cast Dick Cheney as the Antichrist--no doubt he was too busy working on Armageddon--but even so, the actors roster was more than sufficient to pique my curiosity.

The second reason I responded was the date of the film's release: 6-6-06. Was this why the remake was mounted in the first place? If so, I find it completely astonishing, conjuring as it does visions of executives at 20th Century Fox sitting around, watching the calendar for the Mark of the Beast to come up, and having serious discussions about planning their production and release schedules around it. Does this at last prove that Hollywood really is in league with the Devil? (Or does the fact that Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who many people suspect of being the Antichrist, have something to do with it?)

From what I hear, John Moore's Omen leaves the original's story very much intact. Schreiber plays an American diplomat stationed in Rome who agrees with a strange priest's proposal to substitute a foundling for the baby that is born dead to his wife, who's played by Stiles. It's only after the couple is reassigned to London, and the baby grows into a rather odd tyke, that there's reason to believe that he might be more than just a run-of-the-mill little devil.

Though Moore gives the film a stylish polish and gets excellent work from his top-drawer cast--the scene-stealer is Rosemary's baby's mom herself, Mia Farrow, as the nanny from hell, a sort of satanic Mary Poppins--the whole affair feels rather old-hat. Perhaps that's because it refers back to an era when the makers of horror films seemed to believe in Christian doctrine, especially the scarier parts of Revelation. The wonderfully paradoxical thing about this tale, after all, is that it invites us to cheer the guy trying to stop the Antichrist when only the arrival of the Antichrist (a kind of diabolical John the Baptist) can usher in the Second Coming.

So, aha! Maybe the film wasn't timed to 6-6-06 after all. Maybe it was intended to revivify the faithful after the Gnostic siren song of The Da Vinci Code. All of which would tend to suggest that Hollywood, or least Fox, is really in league not with the Devil but with ... the Vatican?

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