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Thursday
Aug 16 2018

Months of Meryl: A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#33 —YolandaJohnson,a Midwestern songstress and longtime staple of the titular radio show.

MATTHEW: Two of the most revered artists in American cinema history,Robert Altman and Meryl Streep each built their lauded careers by probing into characters from countless corners of the world,driven by an ardent and undiminished interest in the micro — but never minor — idiosyncrasies of collective human behavior.For those who believe in the supernatural forces of fate,there is something undeniably kismetic in Streep and Altman's first collaboration,which would turn out to be this mighty auteur's valedictory effort.A Prairie Home Companion,Altman's final film,is a moving backstage comedy that sketches out the (fictional) final broadcast of the historic and beloved Minnesota radio variety show of the title,created and hosted byGarrison Keillor,who also scripted the picture.(Keillor was fired from his program in November of last year over allegations of sexual misconduct.) Brimming,like all of Altman's work,with an abundance of people and all their peculiarities,A Prairie Home Companionrelies on the character-inhabiting talents of an irresistible and excitingly-paired ensemble,whose every member gets ample opportunity to ingest spirit and specificity into a wide array of oddballs and straight-men,from Woody Harrelson and John C.Reilly's ribald cowboys to Maya Rudolph's quietly panicked and heavily pregnant stage manager to the pair of aging songbirds brought to fanciful,rueful life by Streep and Lily Tomlin.

As Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson,the two surviving members of a four-sister singing act,Streep and Tomlin are,quite simply,a match made in acting heaven...


Their dazzling crosstalk,made up of personal reminiscences that merge and meander with the arch yet affectionate effortlessness of women who have known each other forever,exists on an entirely different wavelength from any other form of communication in the movie.Tomlin is an expected hoot as the boozy and often chagrined Rhonda,so sure-footed in her character's shoes that she seems to unlock a languid instinct in Streep as Rhonda and Yolanda sit side-by-side in their dressing room early on,doing little more than shooting the shit while preparing for their last hurrah.Coming off of three very busy performances,Streep shines here in one of the more laid-back and under-celebrated characterizations of her vaunted career.Between her frilly tops and hokey aphorisms,Yolanda Johnson could have very easily been sold as a comedic curiosity,but Streep's conviction reinforces the character into a folksy but full-bodied woman who isnotto be condescended to.Even her chirpy,sidewinding rambling,given voice by Streep's fluty,vowel-rounding Midwestern purr,suggests that Yolanda possesses a complicated interior and is thus far more than a frivolous chatterbox.

Yolanda may not necessarily feelmorethan her fellow performers but she certainly feels the most clearly,which isn't to say Streep's style is purely — or,rather,overly— demonstrative.Instead,Streep zeroes in on a feeling and condenses it into a tiny,lived-in gesture or expression,whether it's the confused,quicksilver frown she buries when confronted with the morbid moroseness of her teenage daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan,so sweet,attentive,and full of promise),or the self-effacing way Streep buries her face into Tomlin's shoulder as the sisters sit in front of their mirror,singing the first of many dirges in memory of all the souls who loved them and departed.But Streep is also,unquestionably,hilarious,making all of her jokes matter even when she appears to just be tossing them off,e.g.Yolanda describing The Carter Family to a clueless Lola: "The Carter Family,sweetheart… Just like us,only famous."In these introductory moments alone,Streep has presented us with a prismatic emotional state that only intensifies and opens out further each time we re-encounter Yolanda.

This is your first viewing ofA Prairie Home Companion,correct?I know you also adore Altman so I'd love to hear how you think Yolanda Johnson fits into a body of work teeming with indelible and distinctive female characters.


JOHN: It's unclear why I've postponedA Prairie Home Companionuntil now since Altman and Streep are two of my all-time cinematic heroes,although I've been praying for a chance to see their work first on the big screen,where all of Altman's panoramic pictures deserve to be viewed.WhenA Prairie Home Companioneventually gets around to the New York repertory circuit,I'll be first in line to rewatch this sage,spirited swan song and the inspired Streep performance it boasts.Part Karen Black inNashville,part Shelley Duvall in3 Women,Streep's Yolanda Johnson is an exquisitely complex comic performance that is equally as bruised and vulnerable as the actress' dramatic work.Yolanda is a theatrical chanteuse who understands that life is its own kind of performance and doesn't feel inclined to separate backstage behavior from her center-stage showcases.There's little difference between Yolanda relating stories about her family to Lola in her dressing room and Yolanda performing similar material in front of an auditorium of people,her stories disseminated to scores of radio listeners.Yolanda may at first appear fussy or flat,but there is real heart and truth in the intimacy she conjures between her immediate family and her far-flung fans.Streep is constantly challenging our understanding of Yolanda,alternating between her girlish naiveté and timeworn wisdom,her nervous energy and relaxed demeanor.

And she sings!At this point,it's no secret that Streep can sing almost nearly as well as she acts,two skills she has flexed with increasing frequency through the latter half of her career.(The closest forebear to her work here is her sublime performance in 1990'sPostcards From the Edge,which features perhaps Streep's greatest musical moment in her rendition of "You Don't Know Me.") InA Prairie Home Companion,Streep is part of a cheeky callback to Altman's earlierNashville,during whose finale Ronee Blakley's Barbara Jean sings a song named "My Idaho Home"minutes before her murder.In the later film,Streep and Tomlin instead sing "My Minnesota Home,"reminiscing about their hardscrabble yet idyllic childhood and how much they miss their momma.Streep and Tomlin manage to convey a shared history through their voices,body language,and facial expressions,conjuring up the Minnesota prairie of their youth after travelling across "all of God's creation."Like Streep's performance,the song may at first seem trivial,but it soon builds into a rich emotional experience,appropriately sentimental and nostalgic,rooted in real experience.In both their musical numbers and backstage chats,Streep and Tomlin create an inspired duet,overlapping their dialogue and completing each other's sentences with startling synchronicity.Streep often fares well with a fellow comic sparring partner,and in her scenes with Tomlin you wish that Streep could always share the stage with someone as equally gifted in comic timing and physicality.

A Prairie Home Companionwas the coda to an astounding career full of bold and innovative explorations of human behavior,redefinitions of film genres,and interrogations of the American experience,spanning across history and several decades of filmmaking.His final film,similar to his masterfulNashville,Short Cuts,andKansas City,among many others,features a sprawling ensemble of compelling characters competing with each other for the viewer's attention,their voices often overlapping through Altman's singular technological achievement of multilayer soundtracks.Combined with his penchant for long takes and improvisation,Altman's artistry has led many actors to revere his style of direction;Altman knew how to grant actors the freedom and scenarios in which to create,allowing for spontaneity within a unified artistic vision,while also shaping their creations into legible characters.Streep,ever-playful and creative in countless roles,arrives fully prepared to meet this challenge,giving a top-tier Altman characterization.You get a sense that Streep feels comfortable and encouraged to create a character from the ground-up,even as she riffs on material Keillor has partly scripted out beforehand.

As much as the film undoubtedly marks the end of Altman's illustrious career,I also feel that it closes the chapter of a certain phase of Streep's own career and the type of exciting,character-driven roles that are few and far between on the horizon.Not everyone can be Robert Altman,but I'm anticipating scant opportunities for Streep to even remotely create and play with a role the way she does inA Prairie Home Companion.Do you also feel this way,or am I just feeling too spoiled by Yolanda Johnson?

MATTHEW:  I wish Streep had crossed paths with Altman at least 30 years before this fortuitous meeting.Who knows what other gems these two might have made in tandem?But I wouldn't necessarily markA Prairie Home Companionas the closing of a chapter so much as a pinnacle of a type of performance style that Streep has become progressively partial to: the unreserved,surface-dwelling vivacity of being that the actress has employed in the service of her Character Parts,from Julia Child to Margaret Thatcher to Florence Foster Jenkins.But with an auteur like Altman,the sheer size of a potentially overwhelming scene-stealer like Yolanda is tempered by the direction itself,which is engrossed by the quirks of occasionally outlandish human beings and the authentic emotions that undergird their existence.This is the type of filmmaking ethos that benefits all actors,even those who we frequently deem as capable of "directing themselves."

As a performer who has always refused to take the well-trodden road into a scene,Streep is a perfect partner-in-crime for Altman,whose extended,off-the-cuff shooting style prevents any of his actors from relaxing into their comfort zones and whose restless camera may easily wander somewhere else,to anyone who catches his inquisitive eye.Streep rewards the gaze of Altman's lens with a coloratura of golden,spontaneous reactions,whether she's the focus of a scene or waiting in the wings.I love the way she refuses to even acknowledge the existence of Keillor,who once spurned a still-smarting Yolanda,during "Gold Watch & Chain,"dodging eye contact with him and brandishing an immolating scowl throughout the characters' duet.She's equally delightful as just another backstage player,one in an ensemble of many,beaming with pride off-stage as Lohan's Lola gets her first turn at the mic and,later,flickering with fear as the Angel of Death approaches,ready to take her or else someone dear.Streep is as attuned as she always is to the tone of a scene,but also alert to occasions when she might stray afield and vary it."My Minnesota Home"might have been an overly somber number were it not for the decisive moments in which Streep,eyes glinting with remembrance,lets loose with a roaring syllable or a vigorous stage-hand,turning this heartsore tribute to her mama and a home that can never be returned to into something quite vital indeed.

Life may have eaten away at Yolanda's high hopes but her perseverance has not lessened an ounce.Through Streep's creative alchemy,she is a scrappy,sparkling addition to Altman's bountiful character gallery.What these two incomparable storytellers might have brought to the screen had they found each other sooner,or had Altman's life carried on just a little bit longer,is almost too tantalizing to bear.But at least we haveA Prairie Home Companion,which remains bittersweet proof that some gifts find their way to us just in the knick of time.

Reader,what else stands out for you about Streep's work here?Altman's films are always bursting with actorly grace notes that I feel like there's so much of this performance we haven't even touched on!


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Reader Comments (21)

Had totally forgotten about this!I remember thinking that Lindsay Lohan could actually act and that Lily Tomlin was a hoot.(And I think the first post-Sideways Virginia Madsen role?)

Don't recall too much about Streep other than her singing was surprisingly good.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Altman said Streep doesn't need a director.Paul Thomas Anderson was onset every day as a backup shadow director in case Altman was unable to complete production.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

One of my Altman faves.A delightfully entertaining,very underrated film.Streep is great in it...and so is almost everyone else.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

My money's on this being the first and last time you'll ever see Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan in a film together ;-)

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Tomlin is especially fabulous.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Doesn't Lindsay want to be cast as Ariel and Meryl as Ursula in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid?She is so delusional but live to dream.

I think this movie is a little gem.I love all the actors and characters and how it's very Altman and completely unfussy.

It is nice that Paul Thomas Anderson was there for Altman so the production could get insured.I do wish PTA would put Streep into a lead role -- that collaboration would be dynamite.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

It was a lovely film for Altman to end on,it's low key charm wears well.It wasn't as saccharine as Garrison Keillor usually is (for me).
The interplay between Streep and Tomlin is definitely the highlight.
As far as Meryl Streep's career,it was long over due that she would work with Robert Altman,and it worked for both of them.She fits in with this very large cast,doesn't pull focus,but works with the whole.And Altman praised her as an actress who gave him take after take that he could choose from.He loved her versatility.
Streep and Tomlin got along really well,and it shows.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Meryl and Lily make a fun pair but Woody Harrelson and John C.Reilly absolutely steal the film,IMO.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

I think they're all great.It's simply a PERFECT ensemble movie.
Yeah,what could have been if Altman and Meryl had found each other sooner….*sigh*
Though better late (or at least last) than never.
Although I'm glad she wasn't in Dr.T and the Women.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

This was an exceptionally great film all the way...everyone was great.Streep really did a top

drawer job.I love that she can fit into any movie without being a STAR.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Discussion of this film is not complete without the greatest awards presentation in history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcp8xjaFfb8

GOD Meryl and Lily are great together.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

I saw this in the theaters and what a joy it was.It is a great final film from any filmmaker though it wasn't intended to be Altman's last film.Still,he at least went out with a winner and Meryl kicked ass as usual.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Dan,thank you for posting that!I remember their sigh of relief when it was over and they realized they nailed it.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Best singing she has ever done in a movie.No need to belt or show off here.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I remember Michelle Pfeiffer dropped out and Virginia Madsen stepped in.Great cast and I love the fact that Meryl had a chance to work with the great Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson at the same time.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

Pfeiffer dropped out???!!!Oh,Michelle we love you despite your terrible taste!

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Loved the film,wonderful cast.Surprised it wasn't better received.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

They are packaging Hamilton with Streep,Lin-Manuel,Daveed,and Rafael Casal.The soundtrack recording from this movie is wonderful.

August 16,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSister Rona Barrett

Sister Rona Barrett- who would Streep play in Hamilton?I am confused

August 17,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

One of the men's roles or a new role?I think the sister had a little too much to drink.

August 17,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJF

I think that Streep had been cast in the film Altman was preparing when he died.It was a fictionalized version of the documentary.Hands on a Hardbody.

August 17,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJP

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