Brewster McCloud (1970): Altman’s Black Comedy, Starring Bud Cort

Robert Altman directed Brewster McCloud, an unsuccessful attempt at black comedy about a young recluse (Bud Cort) who lives in a shelter of the Houston Astrodome, where he builds wings in order to fly.

Grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)

Brewster McCloud
Brewster McCloud (1970 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

He’s helped by his comely and enigmatic “fairy godmother” (Sally Kellerman), as he becomes a suspect in some murders.

The film was shot on location in Houston, Texas, showing the downtown Houston skyline and the Houston Astrodome and Astrohall, with the Texas Medical Center in the background.

Most of the film, though officially credited to Doran William Cannon, was rewritten by Altman or improvised during filming.

After showing the MGM logo, Auberjunois says in voice-over, “I forgot the opening line” instead of the lion’s roar.  Wealthy Houstonian Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton) then begins to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the field of the Astrodome, but stops the band, insisting that it’s off-key. The band and Daphne start again, as well as the credits.

As the credits end, Brewster (Bud Cort) is in an Astrodome fallout shelter, where a pet raven defecates on a newspaper headline about a speech by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew.

A Lecturer played by Auberjunois regales an audience, including an enthusiastic young woman (Jennifer Salt), with knowledge of the habits of birds, as he becomes birdlike himself.

In the end, Houston policemen enter the Astrodome but fail to arrest Brewster before he takes flight using his wings. However, as a human he cannot overcome his inherent unsuitability for flight. Exhausted by the effort, he crashes on the floor of the Astrodome.

The story concludes with a circus entering the Astrodome, played by the film’s cast as clowns, strongmen and circus performers. The ringmaster announces their names, finishing with Brewster, who’s crumpled on the floor.

The film marks the acting debut of Shelley Duvall, who would become a central figure in the future career of Altman and other directors (Kubrick’s The Shining).

Replete with allusions and cultural references to other works, such as The Wizard Oz (through the casting of Margaret Hamilton, the red shoes, dog like Toto), and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 81/2 (specifically in its circus finale), Brewster McCloud is sharply uneven.

Structurally messy, it works too hard to be a sardonic satire of a fairy tale, but it ends up being pretentious and too reliant on its cast; it may have too many characters for its own good.

Like other Altman films, it’s stronger on mood than story, bizarrely modish and iconoclastic, but lacking real wit to sustain its overly episodic narrative.