Meryl and Lily's Prairie Skirts:
Shoes, Oscars and “That Special Relationship”

by Tony Phillips

There’s an innate genius to 13 nominations and two wins, but it’s reassuring that Meryl Streep is also not above mopping wardrobe off a movie set. “These are from The Manchurian Candidate,” the double Academy Award-winner beams, gamely kicking up her legs and removing a high heel in order to showcase it more fully, proudly caressing the pump with a manicured hand. Lily Tomlin, also no slouch in the awards department with six Emmys and two Tonys, is sitting to Streep’s left and can’t resist a Nikita Khrushchev comment. Meanwhile, Streep replaces the heel, but manages to tuck the tablecloth into her shoe, almost bringing the whole mess to the floor. Tomlin marvels aloud, “It’s like she’s doing some kind of bit!”

It’s as sane as things get with these two in one room. Witness their Robert Altman tribute at this year’s Oscar telecast. “That came about because the Academy honored him,” Streep explains, “and I believe he asked for us to do it, which was very sweet.” The pair became close with Altman while shooting his latest, Prairie Home Companion, in which they play the boozy, singing Johnson sisters: Lily is Rhonda, Meryl is Yolanda. But were it not for Altman, with no awards pending for either, they would just as easily passed. “We couldn’t possibly get out of it because of Bob,” Tomlin agrees, “but it’s terrible. It’s so unrewarding to do the Oscars usually. You’re just in for mountains of humiliation.” Above reproach in an antique ivory top and round crystal earrings, Streep, next up as the fashionista to end all fashionistas in The Devil Wears Prada, arches a brow and supplies, “Especially about what you wear!”

Get them outdoors and all bets are off. Take the Prairie rehearsals in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Oh, we had the most glorious day, remember that one day?” Tomlin asks. “Suddenly, and of course they’re used to it up there, but the sky turned red, in a second! We got out into that square by the St. Paul Hotel in that land-marked building and it gets real still. It was like a tornado’s coming, but we don’t know that. We’re out there saying, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful!’” Streep corrects, “We don’t know, but then we hear,” and she begins to imitate a very long, loud and quite convincing fire engine. “And then we’re hearing people going, ‘Meryl, Lily, out of the streets! Out of the streets!” Tomlin laughs. “And we’re thinking, isn’t it odd that there’s this weird sky and there’s a fire? This is so exciting!” Streep finishes, “It was really very dramatic.”

Streep, who signed first to Prairie, became lynchpin casting for the likes of Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen and Lindsay Lohan, knows from the dramatic. As the stellar cast aligned, she faced a knee operation she feared would hobble her. “You never know what’s going to happen,” Streep explains, “why tempt the Gods? So I said I would probably have to not do the picture.” Streep details a crestfallen cast and crew, all except for one, series creator and scribe Garrison Keillor, who also stars and wasn’t about to pass up working with Streep. “They all went, ‘Gasp!’ but Garrison went, ‘Hmmmm, this is an opportunity to put this person in a wheelchair and have this hoist pull her up out of the basement.’” Tomlin makes a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? joke. “I liked the idea because I had seen myself pushing the wheelchair,” she laughs. “Yeah, but where you wanted me,” Streep giggles, “off into the wings, but the surgery went fine.”

Daily surgery is another story. Somehow, Roy Helland, the man behind day-to-day maintenance on Streep’s dewy visage and slick coif has leapfrogged into what might be called svengali. If you want Streep in your movie, you need Roy’s say so. At this point, the ladies try steering the discussion to wild child Lindsay Lohan, who plays Streep’s death-obsessed, poetry-spouting daughter. You’ve seen it before: Lohan raises maternal note in Streep, extrapolate that to Streep’s own daughters and the children of the world and you’re left with Meryl Streep: universal mother. Everybody wins. I’m much more interested in Meryl Streep: universal faghag, so I inquire about her arrangement with Roy.

“What arrangement do you mean?” she asks, narrowing her eyes and bearing down on me. She takes a beat, but begins, “Roy’s the guy. Roy’s my hairdresser and makeup guy and he’s been with me since my first play in New York, Trelawny of the ‘Wells’, when I was right out of graduate school (Yale Drama, for those playing along at home). When I started to get famous, I brought him into the movies. Before that, I didn’t have the ability to, and there were two unions. One was hairdressers and one was makeup, but he came out of the theater and imagined both together, like a complete thing. He had a lot of trouble getting into the union, they tried to keep him out for years and years, but he’s just amazing.” She lets it hang for a while, but by this point, Tomlin is intrigued and pesters, “Well, did they let him do both?”

“Finally, yes, they let him do both,” Streep replies. “But is he in both unions?” Tomlin nags. Streep responds, “I don’t know! I don’t how he worked it out.” Both ladies take a moment and Tomlin finally says, “It’s a wonderful thing to have that special relationship.” I don’t know J. Roy Helland all that well, but he is a dashing older gentleman. IMDB claims he got his start as a female impersonator and I’m fairly certain the relationship Tomlin is talking about is with us gays. “He’s just great,” Streep continues, “because he’s a guy who, if I have an idea, he will say, ‘Ah, I can do that.’” Here she does Roy’s deep, but lilting voice in a way that says we’re miles beyond hair and makeup here. “Yes,” Streep allows, “Roy’s everything.” Tomlin gasps, “He doesn’t wash your smalls, does he?” employing the dainty British for ladies undergarments. “No,” Streep deadpans, before confirming Roy’s penchant for drag, “but I’ve done his.”