Filmed immediately following M*A*S*H* (1970) and released the same year, Brewster McCloud (1970) is even more unstructured and freewheeling than Robert Altman's influential anti-war satire. A contemporary take on the Icarus legend, Brewster McCloud is a crazy quilt of contrasting styles and ideas, combining the comic frenzy of a Chuck Jones cartoon with European film influences (Fellini, Godard, Truffaut) and in-joke movie homages to such favorites as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Bullitt (1968). In some ways, the film even prefigures the gross-out humor of such current fare as There's Something About Mary (1998) in scenes involving bird excrement and a particularly gross-out kissing scene where the heroine has just vomited.
The original screenplay of Brewster McCloud was entitled Brewster McCloud's (Sexy) Flying Machine and had passed from studio to studio over the years, developing a mystique as one of the most famous unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Despite Bob Dylan's interest in the script at one time, the film project seemed doomed until music producer Lou Adler (he managed The Mamas and the Papas) took an interest in it and passed it along to Robert Altman. Brian McKay, who had previously worked with Altman on TV series like Bonanza, took a stab at revising the screenplay but soon dropped out of the project over creative differences with the director, leaving Altman to fashion his own script, often on the fly. Doran William Cannon, the original author, was denied any involvement in the film and was outraged when he eventually saw the finished version. He had also experienced severe disappointment over Otto Preminger's botched adaptation of his screenplay for Skidoo (1968). Cannon, nevertheless, confronted Altman in a bizarre telephone conversation which was later partially quoted in The New York Times:
Altman: Your screenplay was a piece of crap!
Cannon: My screenplay was perfect.
Altman: It was crap.
Cannon: You bought it!
Altman: You sold it!
The on-location filming of Brewster McCloud was another story. It was Altman's idea to film in Houston, Texas and use the Astrodome as the central location. Of course, there were the expected on-the-set difficulties: Altman replaced cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth with Lamar Boren during the shoot and clashed with leading man Bud Cort. The director also was briefly hospitalized with a hernia which slowed down production. But there were also good times as well. Altman liked to party as hard as he worked and insisted on relaxing with his cast and crew after hours, hosting informal gatherings where the marijuana and alcohol were plentiful. Brewster McCloud marked the screen debut of Shelley Duvall who was discovered at an engagement party for a local Houston artist. Duvall would go on to become a key actress for Altman, appearing in six of his films, including Three Women (1977) in which she plays a similarly vacuous and foolish character. Another Altman favorite, Michael Murphy, appears in an amusing supporting role as detective Frank Shaft, a broad parody of Steve McQueen's character in Bullitt, complete with piercing blue eyes (courtesy of special contact lenses) and an ever-changing wardrobe of turtlenecks and leather shoulder holsters.
Although Altman predicted that Brewster McCloud would join M*A*S*H* in dominating the Oscar race in 1970, he was sadly mistaken. Critics were either baffled by or hostile to its peculiar charms and James Aubrey, the new studio head of MGM, so disliked Altman and the film that he condemned Brewster McCloud to a quick play-off in saturation bookings across the country. But Altman still champions Brewster McCloud as one of his favorites and it certainly enjoyed a certain cult status among college film societies during the seventies.
Producer: Lou Adler, Robert Eggenweiler (associate producer), James Margellos (associate producer)
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Doran William Cannon
Cinematography: Lamar Boren, Jordan Cronenweth
Film Editing: Lou Lombardo
Original Music: Gene Page
Principal Cast: Bud Cort (Brewster), Sally Kellerman (Louise), Michael Murphy (Shaft), William Windom (Haskell Weeks), Shelley Duvall (Suzanne), Jennifer Salt (Hope), Bert Remsen (Douglas Breen), Margaret Hamilton (Daphne Heap), John Schuck (Lieut. Johnson), Stacy Keach (Abraham Wright).
by Jeff Stafford