Robert Altman gazes out the window of a high-speed Amtrak train bound for Boston. Facing him, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline examine a plate of breakfast pastries; across the aisle, John C. Reilly strums a guitar. All three star in Altman's new movie, A Prairie Home Companion, and they've reunited with the director on this April morning to do some promotion in Beantown, where Streep is to be honored by a local film society. ''I never dreamed there would be snow up here,'' Altman marvels, as a freshly dusted New England landscape whizzes by. Streep guesses they're passing through Waterford, Conn. ''Old Watertown...ba-ba-ba...'' Altman sings, suddenly reminded of Frank Sinatra.
He asks a train attendant for a ''glass of hot tea, with milk'' and, to a rapt audience, talks about his career, which has spanned six decades, yielded more than 35 movies, and earned him seven Oscar nominations. (The first was for 1970's M*A*S*H, the most recent was for 2001's Gosford Park.) ''I think all my films are just one film,'' the 81-year-old director explains. ''I really do. They're just chapters.''
The Prairie chapter is a particularly poignant and personal one for Altman. Based on Garrison Keillor's beloved public-radio variety show about a made-up Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon, its wholesome folks, and their down-home values, the movie chronicles the final broadcast of a (fictional) Prairie show, deemed too old-fashioned by a corporate bigwig played by Tommy Lee Jones. Streep and Lily Tomlin star as a past-their-prime singing-sister act, Reilly and Woody Harrelson as goofy cowboy musicians, and Kline as the show's bumbling security guard. Interweaving live musical performances with backstage goings-on, the film is a bittersweet look at the archaic, dying art form of radio drama. And in wistful and funny ways, it explores human mortality: from Virginia Madsen's angel of death, to Streep and Tomlin's lyrical odes to deceased loved ones, to the comically awful poetry authored by Lindsay Lohan's character.
Known as a maverick for his refusal to play Hollywood studio games all of his movies from the last 19 years, including Prairie (which cost under $10 million), were independently financed Altman speaks honestly and fearlessly about most everything, including his own ''old age.'' At the Oscars in March, he shocked many viewers by revealing he had undergone a heart transplant 11 years ago. Now, when asked how Prairie's life-and-death themes resonate with him, he responds with a hint of a wry smile. ''I'm aware of it.... I do wake up and face it most mornings.'' He then quotes a British WWI ditty: '''Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?''' The octogenarian is equally frank about why his friend, Punch-Drunk Love director Paul Thomas Anderson, was at his side on the Minnesota Prairie set every day. ''I have to have a standby because I'm so old, and they wouldn't insure me,'' he explains. ''On Gosford Park, I had...what's his name? Stephen Frears.''