By Patrick Crain
When M*A*S*H became an unexpected monster hit that would allow Robert Altman to more or less write his own ticket for the next ten years, he came face to face with a stark decision. He could continue down the road of commercialism and give mass audiences what he thought they might have wanted or he could continue being an iconoclast who would blow apart any good will he may have previously accrued by prospectively indulging in projects that meant the most to an audience of one, namely Robert Altman. Within nine months of the release of M*A*S*H, this question would be answered very clearly with the release of Brewster McCloud.
Continuing his trend of doing unwelcome prostate exams on the studio suits, Brewster McCloud may have been even more damning and reprobate than M*A*S*H and it’s evident within the first three minutes. Though MGM’s Leo the Lion title card had been sent up before, never had his maw opened to reveal a mistake (specifically, Rene Auberjonois sheepishly saying “I forgot the opening line” is laid over the roar), announcing the artificiality of the movies before we even see a frame of the actual film. Soon after that, Altman takes center aim at opening credit sequences by calling attention to it while setting up the players in this mad, modern fairy tale (and if audiences thought the verbalized roll call of actors that posed as the closing credits M*A*S*H was audacious, they were likely to be just as delighted at the end of Brewster McCloud and, perhaps, even more so).
Brewster McCloud, on the surface, is a social observation wrapped up in a narrative regarding a bizarre murder mystery. The town of Houston is suddenly plagued by the mass stranglings of some of society’s upper crust, including a wealthy miser who owns a string of rest homes (an unrecognizable, hilarious Stacey Keach) and a gaudily spangled, tone deaf, and miserably loud Marge Schott-like matron all things white in her beloved city (a fabulous Margaret Hamilton). To help solve these murders, hotshot San Francisco detective Frank Shaft (Altman day-player Michael Murphy in his first plum role) and his glorious assortment of turtlenecks are called in to assist and he immediately runs afoul of the local police investigation headed up by acerbic Captain Crandall (G Wood, pretty much playing the same character he did in M*A*S*H). Weaving in and out off this mystery is Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort, charming audiences a year before he really made an impression in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude), a lonely and shy young man who lives in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome and is in the process of building a massive set of wings so one day he can fly far far away. Also, mixed into the craziness is a subplot regarding the widow of a dirty cop (Bert Remsen in his Altman debut), a dizzy yet radiant Astrodome tour guide (Shelley Duvall, an absolute doll in her film debut), a local political bigwig (William Windom), and a great deal of bird shit.
There are a great deal of elements in this very specific stew that makes it such an enticing curiosity and quite unlike anything else in Altman’s filmography. Along with its relentless torching of everything stupid and ugly about American culture (racism, corruption, sleazy politicians), the film takes some pretty hip weed humor out for a stroll along with more than a few homages to the Wizard of Oz and cop films of the day (most especially Bullitt and Shaft). Likewise clever and curiously amusing is the film’s continuous monologue by the lecturer (Auberjonois) whose theories on man and bird prove to be so potent, he slowly transforms into an overstuffed winged creature as the movie unfolds.
But, amid the almost surreal, carnival atmosphere that perfumes the film, there are deeper and more serious themes at play in Brewster McCloud. Bud Cort is not unlike his character in Harold and Maude in that he’s engaged in a strange relationship with an older woman and is also unable to connect to the real world. But in Brewster McCloud, the audience doesn’t much know what has caused him to give up on humanity to the point he would retreat into such a cockeyed fantasy. Sally Kellerman’s mysterious, trench-coated, doting, mama bird/angel of death character of Louise hangs about in the background and cuts a figure that Altman would return to with just a little less amusement in the last hour of his career when mortality was watching his every move. And not unlike Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster is a sexual cripple. Taught to believe that the closest experience to flying at man’s disposal is the pleasure of sex and that, once one has been deflowered, man settles and loses his desire for flight, his sex life is relegated to him doing an insane amount of chin-ups while his girlfriend (a hilarious Jennifer Salt) masturbates under the covers.
Brewster McCloud is a very singular, madcap moment in Altman’s career that feels something like a palate cleanser that was splashed into the audience’s face to repel the squares who had hitched onto M*A*S*H for all the wrong reasons. Where he would give flesh to some bottom shelf National Lampoon characters some fifteen years later with his underrated O.C. and Stiggs, Altman here looks to be crafting something that feels like it escaped from a movie parody right out of MAD Magazine. And while the final moments of the film drive home just what an actor’s movie the film is, the real star of Brewster McCloud may very well be the Astrodome itself. A scant five years after it was completed, Altman saw it as one of the best metaphors for the day; a monument to the fact that the human race eventually became far more risk-adverse and less adventurous and would opt to nest in the reliable creature comforts one got from living in a cage. And it was a cage Altman would continue to rattle as if doing so were a personality trait.