In Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the filmmakers respectively invoke death to gently chastise viewers for the imaginary crime of not affording them the appreciation they feel they deserve. Both works cry out, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” Yet for all their surface similarities, they are oceans apart in tone.
All That Jazz, one of my favorite movies, is meandering, infuriating and surreal, packed with dance numbers and music. Scripted by Robert Alan Aurthur, and owing Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ a debt too large to repay, Fosse reimagines the musical drama of his own life, sometimes employing original cast members (Ann Reinking plays a character based on herself), while crafting a self-congratulatory piece that screams “I am Bob Fosse! I am breathing down the Grim Reaper’s neck because I’m a drug-addicted workaholic! Partake in my world of cynical Broadway smut, and celebrate me before it’s too late!” Prairieis also meandering, infuriating, surreal and full of music. Owing All That Jazz a similarly huge debt, Altman builds a dramatic frame around a facsimile of Keillor’s long-running radio program and some of its recurring castmembers and characters, while crafting a self-congratulatory piece that declares, “I am Robert Altman! The Grim Reaper is breathing down my neck! Partake in my world of cynical Midwestern sing-a-longs and celebrate me before it’s too late!”
In Flesh for Frankenstein, Udo Kier says, “To know death, you must fuck life in the gallbladder!” Both Prairie and Jazz aim for a more easily accessible point of penetration by envisioning the Angel of Death as a hot blonde chick dressed in virginal white. In Jazz, Jessica Lange plays Angelique, who appears to protagonist and Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) in a form he can appreciate. He knows that she has come for him; like the Ghost of Christmas Past, Angelique leads Gideon through the various events that led to their meeting. Though a chronic lothario who lies to the women in his life, Gideon feels compelled to be truthful to Angelique—and to resist her. When she moves to administer the Kiss of Death, Gideon stops her; it might be the first time he’s ever resisted a woman’s charms. Angelique seems vapid, but her dialogue reveals that her bullshit detector is on: “I always look for the worst in people,” Joe tells her. “A little of yourself in them?” she asks. Fosse also alludes to Angelique taking the physical representation of one of Gideon’s fans and former lovers: Gideon’s mother tells Angelique, “He always loved you.” Meanwhile, back in the real world, Joe Gideon is dying in the hospital while the backers of his latest Broadway show weigh their options. Gideon’s death would potentially mean the demise of the show, unless the backers can convince Gideon’s nemesis (John Lithgow) to direct it; however, their accountants state that if Gideon dies, they can make a bigger profit by letting the show die with him. Thus Angelique gets to claim Gideon’s last potential triumph in a two-for-one sale on his soul.
Both living and dying are envisioned as intricately choreographed and rehearsed performances. A recurring montage of Gideon’s bleary-eyed wakeup routine—Alka-Seltzer, cigarette, Visine, Dexedrine—appears several times in the film, always scored to Vivaldi’s “Concert in G” and ending with Gideon looking in the mirror and declaring, “It’s showtime, folks!” Fosse ends Jazz with a number titled “Hospital Hallucination, Take 1,” a nearly 30 minute, self-indulgent tribute to himself—one final showstopper for Fosse/Gideon; since we’re never asked to like Gideon, it’s a ballsy way to end the movie. Costars Reinking, Leland Palmer, Erszebet Foldi, Ben Vereen and Scheider give a taste of what the film version of Fosse’s Broadway hit Chicago might have looked like had Fosse survived to direct it—though like the “Air-otica” sequence earlier in Jazz, it seems a pre-emptive self-parody of his distinctive style. The deathbed number and the gruesome open heart surgery footage that precedes it are endurance tests for viewers.
In Prairie, Virginia Madsen portrays The Dangerous Woman, aptly named because her performance is dangerously bad. Madsen’s Angel of Death has also come for the film’s protagonist—the radio show itself. Sure, she picks off a few people en route, but her purpose is more symbolic. G.K. (Garrison Keillor)—Prairie’s screenwriter, the creator of the real-life radio program, and Altman’s de facto stand-in—vows to have one last great show before the theater in which he performs is razed. G.K’s nemesis, represented by company man Tommy Lee Jones, could let this institution live, but he notes that they’ll make more money without it. Like Gideon, G.K. is also a womanizer, as evidenced by Lola Johnson’s (Meryl Streep) out-of-left-field freak-out during a duct tape commercial.
But G.K. seems far more dishonest about both his sexual history and his feelings about mortality than Fosse’s alter-ego. When the show’s resident horny old man keels over, presumably after taking a load of Viagra, G.K. seems apathetic. Later in the film, Dangerous Ginny comments that “the death of an old man is not a tragedy,” which led me to holler out, “Bullshit, Mr. Altman.” When Lola asks if he is concerned that this is the last show, G.K. says “every show is your last show. That’s my philosophy.” “Thank you, Plato,” Lola’s sister Yolanda (Lily Tomlin) sarcastically replies, saving grumps like me the trouble of talking back to the screen again.
While acknowledging Altman’s importance, I find his tone here lacks the passion for life that speaks to me from Fosse’s film. Even in Altman’s brilliant breakthrough period—the era of M*A*S*H and Nashville—he has always come off as a curmudgeon. But the Kansas City native was 80 when he sat in Prairie’s director’s chair—with acolyte-turned-protege Paul Thomas Anderson by his side, just in case the lady in white decided to drop in before the wrap party. This makes him the perfect director for the kind of film Prairie’s radio fans hoped to see; Altman understands Midwestern stoic folksiness. Fosse, a Chicago native born two years after Altman, was 52 and a Broadway veteran when he made All That Jazz; his relative youth made it a more visceral ride to the same destination of deathly meditation.
But the Keillorites’ gain may count as a loss for some. I am closer to 52 than 80, and more attuned to Broadway than Lake Woebegone; I know more about sex and self-destruction than the wisdom of age and the sense of entitlement one feels for living a long life. Most importantly, though, I also know something about being a grouch, and from that vantage point, Prairie’s subtle exhortations to go gentle into that good night seem a false comfort from Altman to his fans—a reassurance that displaces his usual blunt honesty. For a movie whose cast includes a sexy reaper, Prairie is too smug and passive about dying. The mortal coil is unraveling from the show and its participants, yet Altman chooses to deflect a universal fear by pretending that death is a mere nuisance.
This is why Madsen is so terrible; her air-headed angel’s platitudes ring hollow in the Altman universe we’ve come to know. Would the younger Altman have let a character get away with such bullshit? This artist has never felt the need to embrace and console his audiences in the past, so why start now? Nashville’s final number, “It Don’t Worry Me,” was about willful denial; the whole of Prairie is about acceptance, yet it feels like a denial as well. The palpable fear that this is Altman’s last movie is never honestly dealt with by the director’s stand-in, Keillor, nor the film itself. It seems almost as if Prairie thinks it holds the monopoly on dying, and that the show-within-a-movie is noble—and its demise a tragedy—simply because it’s been around for so long. Altman’s onscreen representative G.K. keeps pooh-poohing the distress his colleagues feel throughout their last show, going so far as to state that he doesn’t want to tell people how to feel about his legacy; but his relaxed attitude never feels true. Altman throws out a hopeful, interesting curve when dealing with the fate of Tommy Lee Jones’ character (a fantasy of how to deal with one’s enemies). Here is the mean Altman we know and love, lashing out at his critics, informing you of his perceived greatness and how much it’ll be missed once he’s gone. But the film treats it as a throwaway; as quickly as it arrives, it defers back to that transparent, dishonest lulling. If Prairie weren’t so concerned with coddling us, we’d deduce that it’s OK to acknowledge Death—-just don’t go looking for it; wait until it shows up to pull your number.
Both films are obsessed with death, but where Jazz dramatizes and fulfills its own prophecy, Prairie ignores the apparition in the corner of the room. Gideon’s doctor says at one point that Gideon “doesn’t give a fuck” about his life anymore since his hospital room is always full of sex and booze. While neither Joe Gideon nor G.K. seem to give a fuck about their own inevitable passing, Fosse the filmmaker is at least honest about his fear (and fascination)—an honesty that extends to self-destructively pushing up his date with the woman in white.
Fosse’s semi-autobiographical confession was prescient: the heart attack that took Joe Gideon took his creator as well, and also claimed what might have been Fosse’s final film triumph, Chicago. Altman, at this writing, is still with us despite having similar heart trouble. Perhaps, at 80, you look at life differently than at 52, which might explain why Prairie is slower, more passive and less defiant than Jazz. But if Prairie could act as elder statesmen and deliver a message back to Joe Gideon, it would come from Jearlyn Steele, who sings, “The day is short/the night is long/Why do you work so hard to get what you don’t even want?”