BREWSTER McCLOUD (Robert Altman, 1970)
by John C. Kerr
Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, Margaret Hamilton, Stacy Keach, Rene Auberjonois. 105 minutes.
'A different kind of film from the director of M*A*S*H.' Tagline to the film's US release poster, 1970.
Det Lt Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy): 'There are times, Bernard, when a man works best alone.'
Bernard (William Baldwin): What did he mean by that?
Officer Johnson (John Schuck): I don't know, but it's something.
After the huge success of M*A*S*H in 1970, the comedy drama set in the Korean (read Vietnam) War, director Robert Altman found himself bankable. After working in the industry for over a decade, he found himself on the verge of the big time. Armed with a larger budget and creative freedom, he decided not to play safe, but instead directed BREWSTER McCLOUD, a quirky comic fantasy which defies easy description. As a choice of project, it was not the obvious one, but it was to set the template for his future career, where unpredictability was to become his hallmark.
BREWSTER McCLOUD is not an easy film to categorise. Indeed, if you were to boil the plot down to its essence - lonely young man dreams of being able to fly, and is helped by an angel who has lost her wings - it sounds more like the description of a Disney film. However, the film has a hard edge and a vicious sense of humour which counters any accusations of whimsy.
It seemed a strange choice for Altman to have directed an obvious fantasy. His earlier films showed a tendency towards realism, including his first feature THE DELINQUENTS (1957). For all its ribaldry, M*A*S*H did not shy away from the true horrors and realities of war, and the 1968 film COUNTDOWN (on which he was fired after the film's completion due to his refusal to cut the film's running time down), although a 'space' film, had a plot realistically extrapolated from the limits of space technology of that time. His later output would also place a large emphasis on realistic, character driven narratives, but Altman would always retain a respect for the fantastic, and would occasionally return to more stylised fare, most notably in his science fiction film QUINTET (1979) and in the whimsical musical POPEYE (1980).
It was the contrast with his earlier work, and the chance to show more creative freedom, that may have drawn him to the film, which was the first feature for his production company, Lion's Gate Films (not to be confused with the current company Lionsgate). The film was greenlit by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with additional funding coming from Lou Adler. Better known as a music producer, Adler had branched into films, having started with the documentary MONTEREY POP (1968). Adler was drawn to the off-beat; he would later produce THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) and its sequel SHOCK TREATMENT (1981), as well as a brace of Cheech and Chong movies.
The film started as an original screenplay by Doran William Cannon, whose most significant previous credit was the script for Otto Preminger's crazy comedy (and major flop) SKIDOO (1968). Although not a fantasy, SKIDOO cannot be classed as realistic. It's a crime caper in which 60s stars Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, and Frankie Avalon spar with various Hollywood Greats, including Mickey Rooney, George Raft and Groucho Marx (his final film). However, it is known that Altman hated the script that Cannon delivered, and it was rewritten by Altman's friend and colleague Brian McKay (who would script Altman's next picture, 1971's McCABE AND MRS MILLER for Altman). For contractual reasons, Cannon received sole screen credit. The script continued to be modified during shooting, with some of the action and dialogue improvised. The flow of the plot is not compromised by this, however, and the film stands as a coherent whole; and though much of the dialogue is absurdist, none of it is wasted.
BREWSTER's cast is a mixture of new faces and cameos from existing stars. Heading up the castlist are two returnees from M*A*S*H: Sally Kellerman (who had played Hotlips) and in the title role Bud Cort, who was Private Boone in the earlier film. Cort is well cast, his innocent face perfect for playing the unworldly Brewster. He would later go on to appear in another classic black comedy, HAROLD AND MAUDE, the following year. In both films he plays awkward, obsessive characters, detached from the real world. More recently, Cort had a small role as one of the earthly incarnations of God in Kevin Smith's DOGMA (1999) (another film about fallen angels).
Three other cast members were also M*A*S*H alumni: Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois and John Schuck. They would all be seen in subsequent Altman movies, establishing Altman's method of using an unofficial repertory company of favourite character actors. Murphy had already featured in COUNTDOWN and M*A*S*H. Bert Remsen, who has a small role in BREWSTER, would also appear in several Altman films including NASHVILLE (1975).
The most notable addition to the cast was Shelley Duvall. A Houston native, she had been discovered at a party by Brian McKay and Tommy Thompson, another of Altman's colleagues, during their involvement in the film's pre-production. At the time, she was a college student supplementing her income with a job selling cosmetics in a department store, and had no previous acting experience. Altman was fascinated by her fresh faced look and cast her in the key role of Suzanne Davis, Brewster's love interest. This was to be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration which would last throughout the 1970s through to her starring role as Olive Oyl in another Altman fantasy, the underrated POPEYE. Her work with Altman shows her developing as an actress, from her kooky role in BREWSTER through to strong dramatic performances in films such as 3 WOMEN (1977), for which she won the Best Actress award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.
BREWSTER's supporting cast also features Stacy Keach, fresh from starring in two other cult films, END OF THE ROAD (1970) (partially set in a lunatic asylum) and THE TRAVELLING EXECUTIONER (also 1970, which also featured Bud Cort). He would later appear in further offbeat fare such as John Huston's FAT CITY (1972) and William Peter Blatty's THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (aka TWINKLE, TWINKLE, 'KILLER' KANE) (1980).
Last but not least, the film features one old-style Hollywood star, Margaret Hamilton, who had played the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). (There are homages to the film in BREWSTER McCLOUD.) Here she plays Daphne Heap, one of Brewster's enemies in the Astrodome (and one of the first to turn up dead).
BREWSTER McCLOUD was shot in Houston, Texas. This was not Altman's first choice as a location. He originally wanted to set the film at one of New York's airports, which would have tied in nicely with the film's themes of flight and escape, but he settled on Houston's Astrodome, a state of the art multi-purpose sports stadium, as the film's main location. The film was the first feature film to be shot there. Other locations include the now-defunct Astroworld amusement park, a suitably fantastic place in its own right. The film premiered (appropriately enough) at the Houston Astrodome, on 5th December 1970. According to the IMDB (unsourced) trivia page, Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz, who controlled the Dome at that time, promoted the movie by trying to sell tickets for cars to drive-in to see the film! VIPs watched the movie from folding chairs on the field. Despite this dramatic premiere, MGM did little to promote the film on release and it faded from view. Fortunately this did not mean the end of Altman's career, and he would return the following year with the unorthodox Western McCABE AND MRS MILLER, featuring two big stars in Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
From the get-go it's clear the audience is not in for a conventional motion picture. The first image is the MGM lion, but instead of the expected roar, the soundtrack features the voice of Rene Auberjonois saying 'I forgot the opening line'. The camera then pans down from the roof of the Astrodome to a band playing 'The Star Spangled Banner' and the title card appears. However, the conductor, Daphne Heap berates the band and tells them to start again. The band complies, and so does the camera, returning to its original position before panning down a second time as the title reappears. The artificiality of these opening moments have immediately dispelled any sense of realism.
We are then introduced to the hero of the film, the eponymous Brewster. He is an introspective, owlish youth (emphasised by his large glasses) who lives alone (and clandestinely) in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome. He works as a limousine driver for the greedy Alexander Wright (Stacy Keach, unrecognisable under thick old man make-up), the rapacious owner of several retirement homes and sanitariums, whose residents are relentlessly bullied for their rent. Wright is portrayed as the lesser-known brother of the Orville and Wilbur, the pioneers of powered flight.
Brewster himself wants to fly, but under his own power, and he is aided in his task by Louise (Sally Kellerman), a supernatural figure who acts, literally, as his guardian angel. Accompanied by a raven, she also acts in lieu of Brewster's mother, offering advice and assistance, even as far as bathing Brewster. (The angel analogy is carried further here, because in the bathing scene we see her bare back, and notice the scars where her wings have been removed, indicating that she is literally a fallen angel).
Brewster steals a rare manuscript book (by Leonardo Da Vinci?) from Wright's library, which gives details of how to fly using artificial wings. Brewster's dream is to build a set of these wings and take off, escaping from his closed world. Louise supports this and assists him in various ways. In particular, she helps protect him from those who may threaten him and hinder his task. Thus, whenever someone menaces Brewster, they end up dead, covered in bird droppings. It can be assumed that Louise, aided by her ever-present raven, represents the angel of death. (The victims die off-screen, but all are strangled.)
On Brewster's trail is San Francisco super-cop Detective Lieutenant Frank Shaft, always clad in a turtleneck sweater, who is flown in to assist with the investigation by local politician Weeks (William Windom). (Ernest Tidyman introduced his Afro-American private detective Frank Shaft in literary form the same year BREWSTER McCLOUD appeared.) Shaft's exploits are announced by commercial radio broadcasts and provide an ironic counterpoint to the on-screen action, a technique later used to great effect by Altman in THIEVES LIKE US (1974). It is soon clear that Shaft is completely useless, despite being hero-worshipped by his companion Officer Johnson. Meanwhile Brewster continues his activities, obtaining a camera and taking photographs of birds in the Astroworld theme park.
At this point Brewster is an innocent; we know nothing at all about his background. Louise is the only parental figure that Brewster knows, and she guides him. In particular, she cautions him against the distractions of the flesh: 'sex is the closest thing they have to flying', she says about humanity, suggesting that Brewster is aspiring to be something greater than human, and that his ability to fly will therefore transcend the human condition. Indeed, for much of the film, Brewster seems oblivious to sexual matters, ignoring the obvious attraction that his friend Hope (Jennifer Salt) holds for him. However, he eventually starts a friendship with the kooky Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall), a tour guide at the Astrodome, who is seemingly a kindred spirit: her huge eyelashes and beguiling manner captivate him. She helps Brewster escape from Frank Shaft in a car chase parodying the one from the film BULLITT (1968).
As Brewster's attraction to Suzanne deepens, the pleasures of the flesh tempt him, and he and Suzanne become lovers. In doing this, Brewster has betrayed Louise, who (after crying like a hurt bird) leaves with her raven. Now without Louise's protection, but feeling safe with Suzanne, Brewster confides with her about his involvement with the murders, thinking that she will understand. He is wrong: Suzanne wastes no time in betraying her 'lunatic boyfriend' to the authorities, leading to the film's tragic conclusion during which Brewster undertakes his (ill-fated) flight within the Astrodome, surrounded by armed police.
The climax of the film, like the opening, is also unusual. Brewster falls from grace - his flight is a failure and plunges to his doom. A band strikes up, playing jaunty music, and there is no end caption. Immediately, accompanied by a screen displaying the legend 'The Greatest Show on Earth', a circus parade enters the Astrodome. All the cast, dressed like circus performers, individually take their bows as they are introduced by the voice of the ringmaster (all the end credits are spoken). Each member of the cast smiles and bows, until the final spoken credit for 'Mister Bud Cort' and the camera zooms in on Brewster's crumpled body in the centre of the arena. The very last image is not one of escape, but of death, and is a final bizarre contrast to the carnival atmosphere of the previous
For a film which revolves around flight, the theme of birds recurs throughout the picture from the very start. A character called simply The Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois) appears at the beginning, promising to describe 'man's similarity to birds, and birds' similarity to men'. He crops up again at various points during the film, both to give his philosophical musings about birds, and to act as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the action. He introduces various characters according to their similarities to birds: Daphne Heap, a shrewish, spinsterly singing coach, is described as 'the unmated song thrush', and a helmeted, bustling security guard at the Houston Astrodome is described as a 'cassowary'. On each of The Lecturer's appearances, he is seen to become more birdlike in his behaviour (cawing and eating birdseed) and ultimately resembles a (flightless) bird in appearance.
Further avian references crop up throughout the film, including the names of the rest homes that Abraham Wright owns (The Feathered Nest Sanatorium, The Blue Bird of Happiness), the car number plates (OWL-18 and BRDSHT), and even Suzanne's car (which is a Plymouth Road Runner). At one point (in the photo lab scene) the poster for the British comedy film DECLINE AND FALL... OF A BIRDWATCHER (1968) can be seen. Even Brewster's own name echoes 'rooster'.
This film has always struck a chord with me, ever since I first saw it in the late 1970s; this is possibly because I have always been fond of black comedies. About the same time I also discovered Jules Feifferís ultra-dark LITTLE MURDERS (1971), directed by Alan Arkin. Neither of these films is in any way realistic, but that does not detract from their enjoyability; and with their darker visions, they offer an alternative to the mainstream.
We know what BREWSTER McCLOUD is - a dark comedy - but what is it actually about? This is open to interpretation. The film can certainly be read as an anti-authoritarian parable: Brewster's enemies (Alexander Wright, Frank Shaft, Bert Remsen's corrupt narcotics cop, the security guard) are all authority figures. Moreover, these figures are ultimately absurd: Shaft is earnest but ineffectual, and eventually kills himself when trapped in a car (after a relatively minor accident chasing Suzanne and Brewster). Other police and politicians are portrayed as corrupt or simple. Alexander Wright is wheelchair bound and meets his end rolling down a hill after drawing a gun on Brewster. The Astrodome's security guard is an absurd, prancing figure who does not speak and always fails to catch up with Brewster. All these authoritarian characters are mocked relentlessly by Altman.
However, other characters that seem to offer freedom are not always as they initially appear. Louise herself is ultimately a controlling figure, and Brewster meets his doom by ignoring her edicts. Brewster's girlfriend Suzanne, whom he trusts, is not the free spirit she at first appears and does not hesitate to betray him.
Ultimately, there is one thing that that I would argue the film is not - and that is escapist. Brewster is trapped by his destiny, and when he finally flies, he cannot escape the confines of the Astrodome, which becomes for him nothing more than a giant cage. He also cannot sustain his flight, as the lecturer notes (in voiceover) he will never gain 'that mastery of the air that is the attainment of millions of years'. The fall of Brewster is the fall of Man.
Ladies and gentlemen, Brewster McCloud...
NB. Altman remarked that he thought Shelley Duvall's personality was fake until he got to know her. The film was released as BIRD SHIT in Japan. Altman described the film as his personal favourite of all his films. Doran William Cannon wrote the original script with Austin Pendleton in mind. Pendleton, who had appeared in SKIDOO, decided to do CATCH-22 (1970) instead. Altman replaced celebrated cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (BLADE RUNNER, 1982) with underwater cameraman Lamar Boren. Note the M*A*S*H poster in Suzanne's apartment.
RECOMMENDED VIEWING: SKIDOO (1968), HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), DOGMA (1999)
The film was released on VHS in the 1980s, and is only recently been made available on DVD in the US only as a bare bones Warner Archive made-to-order DVD, or as a digital download direct from the Warner Brothers online store.
'Brewster McCloud': IMDb page.
'Brewster McCloud': Wikipedia page.