Robert Altman accepted an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in March. At the time, he observed, “When the news first came to me about it, I was caught kind of off guard. I always thought this type of award meant that it was over”.
For months, reports circulated that the director was near death on the set of his latest film, an adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. An insurance company hired Paul Thomas Anderson to “shadow” Altman in case he wasn’t able to finish the shoot. Disheartening news came that the maverick maestro, once known to hold court on set with a scotch in one hand and a joint in the other, was working from a wheelchair.
And still, he completed his most personal film to date, A Prairie Home Companion, filmed on location in St. Paul, Minnesota’s Fitzgerald Theater. It draws from all his interests, familiar from his previous films: humor (M*A*S*H), music (Short Cuts and Nashville), and drama in unexpected places (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park). A Prairie Home Companion combines those elements with typical Altman strategies, like overlapping dialogue and converging multiple storylines, as well as his fanatical appreciation for the process of creating art.
Kneading his own story into Keillor’s script, Altman here flips the bird to the grim reaper with touching, even light-hearted ruminations on family, loyalty, and performance. This backstage story is based loosely on Keillor’s experiences. He started working for a Minnesota radio program named after a cemetery in 1969, then wrote an article for the New Yorker about the Grand Ol’ Opry that sparked his interest in creating a program that combined musical guests and imaginary commercials. The shows played to a live audience, and tickets sold for a dollar at the start. It still airs today on public radio, heard by over four million listeners every week.
Blending Keillor’s mythology with Altman’s style, the movie is nostalgic without being saccharine or cynical. As the crew and cast of a long-running radio show rush about, preparing for their broadcast, we learn that the long-running radio program is set for cancellation and has been bought up by a nameless, evil corporation. On learning this will be their final show, the performers—including sister singers (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep) and two trash-talking cowboys (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly)—react with sorrow and anger. During the onstage commotion, backstage, a beloved crew member mysteriously dies and a shadowy figure dressed in white (Virginia Madsen) finds her way onto the set. (We learn that she is, in fact, an angel who was a fan of the show while she was alive.)
It’s difficult to describe what follows, as not much does. Like Keillor’s hilarious radio program, the movie is more about process than plot. The audience is treated to a number of bawdy jokes, courtesy of Harrelson and Reilly, heart-felt musical numbers (where Lindsay Lohan, as Streep’s daughter, is actually good!), and wise words supplied by the host. The climax, a confrontation between the stuffy corporate raider (Tommy Lee Jones) and Madsen’s angel, comprises an almost operatic justice.
The delicious irony is that after the Academy of Motion Pictures granted Robert Altman an honorary Oscar, he may be poised to flip the bird at not only death, but also Oscar voters. This is a fitting honor for a trailblazer who has worked so tirelessly outside the industry.