Monday, September 6, 2010

Streep at 60: A Prairie Home Companion

The following article was originally published in January 2007. It's slightly revised below.

It didn't take Meryl Streep long. By 1987 at the very latest, just ten years into her career, we knew that she could do everything. We'd already heard the accents, seen the funny, witnessed the sexy, fallen in love, had our hearts broken and heard the magnificent singing voice. If she were less endearing and emotionally attentive as a performer her technical range would be just hateful, a thing to curse as she popped up again and again in films. But this woman has it all. She is, put simply, the most consistent versatile actor in the movies.

So what is there left for Meryl Streep to do? It turns out quite a lot.

The joy of watching her now, thirty plus years into a great filmography, is seeing which actors' muscles get flexed for each new project and seeing which past performances are its predecessors. There's also a communal thrill in watching her surprise both herself and us in each performance since there's nothing left to prove. Can you name another movie star who so regularly seems to be having a grand ole time while they're acting? Can you name another actor who is so technically accomplished but still regularly manages moments that feel spontaneous onscreen? I can't.

I've seen nearly all of her filmography which could explain why I prefer her comedic work. There's less of it so you have to hold it closer. Plus the thing I love most dearly about Meryl Streep (her joy in acting) bubbles right to the surface when she's asked to joke about. The Streep performance I cherish most on a personal level is her work in 1990's Postcards From The Edge wherein she also joked, sang, and played an entertainer. And all of this, if you'll excuse the breathless intro, is a very long way of saying that I was thrilled to see her comedic and musical chops get a work out again as "Yolanda Johnson" in A Prairie Home Companion .

Yolanda (Streep) is part of a singing group "The Johnson Girls" that once had more members but now includes just herself and her sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin). For the first half hour of the film we get to know Yolanda in a series of brief sequences backstage. In the first she enters the theater where A Prairie Home Companion will hold its last broadcast (please note: this is a fictional film about the still running radio program) with her sister and daughter (Lindsay Lohan). She is holding too many things and nattering incessantly mostly to herself but ocassionally to others. Streep gives her character a quick easy laugh and a fluid temperament. As this sister act prepares for the show, Streep fills you in on the rest of Yolanda.

Yolanda's body language is a little fussy but also slow and open. She's often got her arms outstretched. She has a welcoming folksy presence but you get the immediate sense of fatigue from both age and a life on the road. There's also a weird dichotomous specificity of feeling that Yolanda is both a nervous girl and an old woman entirely at ease with her lot in life. Regarding the latter: several verbal remarks indicate otherwise but Streep plays them more like canned instinctual responses; They come from the character's simple humor and are uttered primarily for her sister Rhonda's benefit.

It's Rhonda who harbors more illwill toward their showbiz history. The famous Altman overlapping dialogue aids Lily and Meryl in detailing this sister act. Yolanda and Rhonda have spent their entire lives together and the actresses ably sell this. They're constantly talking to each other, but it's a well rehearsed decades-long togetherness: their minds are free to float elsewhere knowing that they'll always return to one another.

Yolanda's primary concerns are her death-obsessed daughter (whom she clearly worries about but takes joy in) and Garrison Keillor, the host of the show. You realize through her shift in demeanor with the host that she has either loved or romanced him before the events of the film takes place --Streep shows you this with simple glances even before the dialogue confirms your suspicions. She makes this dead romance her best running gag in the film, mining it for abundant laughs that a lesser actor wouldn't even know where to find let alone amplify.

By the time Streep hits the stage you're already completely aware of this woman's personality and her circumstantial simplicity (this life as a midlevel sister act is the only life she's ever known.) And, then in her vocal performances onstage she just keeps on deepening those initial impressions while giving a musical performance, full of idiosyncratic feeling and beauty.

As in all the best ensemble pictures, the performances of other actors inform each individual turn as well. In a great moment backstage Yolanda, realizing Rhonda is upset about a story they've been retelling, sings an old familiar tune and embraces her sister. When the tune ends, Rhonda tearfully says "singing is the only thing that ever puts me right". She's talking about herself but in Meryl's exuberant, silly, and vocally powerful stage performance that follows, you realize the same is true for her. They're peas in this showbiz pond. Singing also puts Yolanda right.

In so many melancholy and bittersweet ways Robert Altman's last film was a farewell. Casting America's most enduring Great Actress in this role made it sweeter. In the film's last scene the sisters and friends gab around a table about the departed radio show. Yolanda, giggling and reminiscing, is determined to jumpstart a farewell tour...
I love doing that last show. I just wanna do one last show and then another until I'm in a wheelchair. I just wanna keep doing 'em.
The Angel of Death (Virginia Madsen) enters this final sequence and smiles benevolently at these principal players corking Yolanda's infectiously loud joy. You realize immediately that one day all of us will give our last performance. One day all of these actors will be gone, even this beloved goddess of the cinema. Feel free to tear up. It's a testament to the film that the feeling is still somehow a good one.

Meryl Streep is now in her early sixties. She's been knocking her performances out of the park for thirty plus years and there's no reason not to hope for thirty more. She'll keep giving one last great performance until they put her in a wheelchair. She's gonna keep giving 'em.

'Streep at 60' Performance Write-Ups:
Julia, The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Plenty, Death Becomes Her, The River Wild, Music of the Heart and The Devil Wears Prada.

Oscar Nominations Discussed:
78, 79, 81, 82, 83,
85, 87, 88, 90, 95, 98, 99, 02 and 06

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