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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

‘A Prairie Home Companion’: chatting with Garrison Keillor

“It’s Sunday,” said Garrison Keillor a couple of Sundays ago. “I just wanna talk about the Lord’s work.”

He was kidding, of course, in that dry, understated Midwestern way of his. He was there, in a New York hotel surrounded by a group of snarky New York journalists, to talk about his dry, understated, Midwestern movie, A Prairie Home Companion. Even if he’s not sure about this whole movie-business thing:

“I don’t know that I love movies,” Keillor says. “I don’t know that I can go that far. It’s not like reading a book. You can love a book. I don’t know that you can love a movie.” But he went ahead with the PHC movie partly because, he says, he had the “luxury” of “trusting” Robert Altman, the director, with his baby. Why? “He’s from the Midwest,” for one, Keillor jokes, gently. And then, with a delivery just as gentle but with the kind of slyly observant sharpness informed by a deep wisdom about humanity that characterizes Keillor’s writing: “If Altman were to do something squalid and tasteless with it, he’d have to face his wife,” who is a tremendous fan of the radio show that spawned the film. “You can’t hope for more control over a man than that.”

Keillor’s not ready to praise his own work on the film. As a writer, he says, “I’m a failed novelist, I’m a failed poet. I’m still trying to find something to be good at,” implying that perhaps he did not find in screenwriting the personal satisfaction he’s looking for. As an actor — Keillor plays a fictionalized version of himself, as the host of the “Prairie Home Companion” radio show the movie revolves around — he’s even less certain: “I was talked into it for the good of the team, but I’m still not sure about” how well he pulls it off.
But he’s got nothing but admiration for his costars. Of the extended scene in which Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, as the singing Johnson Sisters, extemporize around Keillor’s script, relating family legends of their long lives on the stage, Keillor — who is so low-key that half the time you’re not entirely sure he hasn’t fallen asleep on you — practically raves: “If I’d known how beautiful it would be, that would have been the whole movie, in the dressing room.” (And, indeed, it’s easy to imagine a terrific film created around these two characters performed by these two actresses.) He loves the tangents Kevin Kline took off on as parodic private eye Guy Noir: “Kevin is an actor who has been held in rein over the years. Altman lets actors go wild, let Kevin use every schtick in his repertoire,” and to great comedic effect. Of Lindsay Lohan, who plays Streep’s daughter — and who got the part because, Keillor relates, she was mentioning in published interviews that she wanted to play Streep’s daughter, and so he wrote the part particularly for her — he says, “She brought attitude — we really needed that.”

But PHC would have had plenty attitude even without Lohan. Keillor calls the radio show — and the movie — “less Will Rogers and Hee Haw, more James Thurber and the New Yorker gang,” and that’s about right: the devious wit of the film is no less effective for it being delivered in a Midwestern accent and from a placid point of view. It’s the biggest charm of the film, that its craftiness is deployed with such sweet cunning that you’re still uncovering layers of meaning weeks after you’ve seen it.

“I’m still trying to figure out what it’s about,” Keillor himself admits. “I’m so grateful that it all sort of came together at all.”

See also:
A Prairie Home Companion (review)
‘A Prairie Home Companion’: chatting with Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin
‘A Prairie Home Companion’: chatting with Kevin Kline and Virginia Madsen

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