- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Motion Picture Academy’s board of directors cut it perilously short with Robert Altman. An overdue career Academy Award was presented to the filmmaker, who died Nov. 20 at the age of 81, during last year’s Oscar ceremony. Putting off this gesture for another year would have been a major lost opportunity — and lingering cause for institutional regret.

Mr. Altman’s death made “A Prairie Home Companion,” released in June, his valedictory production. An imminent departure was anticipated in the movie itself, a show business comedy steeped in intimations of mortality. Death literally lurked in the wings and strolled across the set.

Now available in a DVD edition, “Home Companion” is enhanced by a diverting commentary track that partners the director with co-star Kevin Kline. Farewells and endings seem to haunt the pretext. Ostensibly, we’ve been invited to Minneapolis to witness the final performance of Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio variety show, still a going concern in actuality — and pretty well preserved itself in selected audio or videotape editions, no doubt a gift staple for devoted fans every holiday season.

Virginia Madsen is cast as a serenely gorgeous Angel of Death. After hovering beatifically throughout the broadcast, she reappears at the fadeout, beckoning ambiguously to a quartet of characters, including Mr. Kline’s anxious Guy Noir, the show’s resident house dick and the movie’s narrator. It appears that Mr. Altman relished a droll foreshadowing of his own farewell. Accompanying Miss Madsen into eternity looms as a flattering offer.

It’s gratifying that Mr. Altman lived long enough to take advantage of DVD technology and append some commentary tracks to a few films. Not that he mastered the format. You don’t feel as if you’re listening to a genuinely prepared and confident raconteur when sampling his recollections of “Nashville” or “The Player” or “Gosford Park,” but whatever he had to say is now invaluable.

Pairing him with Mr. Kline, a witty and insinuating sidekick, comes closer to an optimum arrangement. Mr. Altman needs a congenial and stimulating companion, especially when he threatens to become bored with his own picture about 20 minutes before the fadeout — during the maudlin duet about their dear departed mama shared by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin.

Mr. Kline is deft at getting things out of Mr. Altman at a juncture when both age and declining energy might have been obstacles to revealing shop talk. For example, the former sounds incredulous when the latter exaggerates his fondness for performers by declaring that “actors are infallible.” He belongs to the directing school that maintains most of the work is done once you’ve cast the picture — Mr. Altman estimated 80 percent during his commentary on “The Player.” This arbitrary figure probably fluctuated from conversation to conversation.

The outlook is traced back to serial television: Mr. Altman says he tired of monitoring word-perfect readings after several years on the job; he let actors rephrase their lines if it helped them and did no harm to a plot point. Mr. Kline’s understanding of the process is less indulgent; he remarks that some actors are better at improvisation than others and some require more guidance. Mr. Altman concedes the point and reflects that directors must adjust to whatever a performer needs. He prefers that actors shoulder the creative workload and trust him to print only good takes.

Mr. Altman insists, preposterously, that he never read the script for “Home Companion.” That side of things was Mr. Keillor’s exclusive province and responsibility. If his recollection can be trusted, the esteemed director confined himself to casting the film (with several of Mr. Keillor’s regulars on board) and then sat back to relish the way everyone entertained him.

The virtue of this summation is that it demystifies direction and elevates the collaborative nature of movie production. The dubious element is that it tends to underestimate the value of screenwriting. I recalled a curious aspect of the commentary tracks for “The Player” and “Gosford Park.” Although Mr. Altman and writer Michael Tolkin are heard on the former, they clearly were not recorded together. Mr. Altman and writer Julian Fellowes have entirely separate “Gosford” commentaries.

When you reflect that “The Player” originated as a Tolkin novel, which he later adapted for producer David Brown, who then spent several years trying to secure a deal before Mr. Altman joined the project as a happy afterthought, you can’t help recoiling at the director’s airy dismissal of the material as “thin” and “a silly little Hollywood satire.” There was more to “The Player” than Mr. Altman cared to acknowledge, although his stylistic flair and humor were ultimately indispensable to the finished film.

The “Gosford Park” commentary provided Mr. Altman with two partners — his son, production designer Stephen Altman, and co-producer David Levy. All three are outclassed by the solo track recorded by screenwriter Fellowes, a gifted raconteur (and eventual Oscar-winner) steeped in fascinating background information about the British class system circa 1932.

“Home Companion” demonstrates the wisdom of giving Mr. Altman a trusted actor to schmooze with. Mr. Kline gives the movie an additional humorous element by reminding the director of what Guy Noir could have brought to scenes in which he doesn’t appear. He even makes a plausible case for the entire movie as a figment of Guy’s imagination. Curiously, this echoes a remark of Mr. Tolkin, who recalls that he sometimes thought of “The Player” as the fever dream of its protagonist, an apprehensive, status-obsessed Hollywood executive.

Mr. Kline also deplores the inequity of “director’s cuts,” suggesting that DVDs ought to have room for “actor’s cuts” as well. Mr. Altman, always partial to the idea that every spectator sees a movie differently, jumps at the idea, welcoming the prospect of infinite variations and DVD versions. While numerous actors and associates remain among the living, there’s a fond case to be made for subsequent DVD commentaries about what it was like to collaborate with Robert Altman.

TITLE: “A Prairie Home Companion”

RATING: PG-13 (“For risque humor” according to the MPAA)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Garrison Keiller. Cinematography by Ed Lachman. Songs by Mr. Keillor and Ken Lazebnik.

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

DVD EDITION: New Line Home Entertainment

WEB SITES: www.newline.com or www.aprairiehomecomapnionmovie.com

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