|Directed by||Robert Altman|
|Written by||Doran William Cannon|
|Produced by||Lou Adler|
|Edited by||Lou Lombardo|
|Music by||Gene Page|
Brewster McCloud is a 1970 American black comedy film directed by Robert Altman. The film follows a young recluse (Bud Cort, as the title character) who lives in a fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome, where he is building a pair of wings in order to fly. He is helped by his comely and enigmatic "fairy godmother," played by Sally Kellerman, as he becomes a suspect in a series of murders and a haughty hot-shot detective lieutenant from San Francisco, played by Michael Murphy, is soon hot on his trail.
The film opens with the usual MGM logo, but with a voice-over by René Auberjonois saying "I forgot the opening line" instead of the lion's roar. As the opening credits roll, wealthy Houstonian Daphne Heap (Margaret Hamilton) 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, while the credits begin again as well. Daphne, who has been off-key herself, insists that this take is much better, but she is surrounded by the young Black band members as we hear Merry Clayton singing an upbeat version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called the "Black National Anthem." All this time, a woman (Sally Kellerman) in a trench coat has been watching from the stands. As the credits end, we see Brewster (Bud Cort), in an Astrodome fallout shelter, where a pet raven defecates on a newspaper headline about a speech by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. Scenes are interspersed throughout the film of a Lecturer played by Auberjunois regales an audience including an enthusiastic young woman (Jennifer Salt) with a wealth of knowledge of the habits of birds, as he becomes increasingly birdlike himself.
Owlish Brewster lives hidden and alone under the Houston Astrodome and dreams of creating wings that will help him fly like a bird. His only assistance comes from Louise (Sally Kellerman), a beautiful woman who wants to help. Wearing only a trench coat, Louise has unexplained scars on her shoulder blades, suggestive of a fallen angel. She warns Brewster against having sexual intercourse, as it could kill his instinct to fly.
While Brewster works to complete his wings and condition himself for flight, Houston suffers a string of unexplained murders, the work of a serial killer whose victims are found strangled and covered in bird droppings. The victims are all authoritarian or overtly racist figures, including Daphne Heap and the aged and wealthy but vicious landlord Abraham Wright (Stacy Keach). Haskell Weeks (William Windom), a prominent figure in Houston, pulls strings to have the Houston police call "San Francisco super cop" Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to investigate. Shaft immediately fixates on the bird droppings and soon finds a link to Brewster. Brewster eludes the police with the apparent help of Louise but he eventually drives her away—and dooms himself—when he ignores her advice about sex by hooking up with Astrodome tour guide Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall). Suzanne saves Brewster by evading Shaft in her stolen Road Runner. Severely injured after losing Brewster, Frank kills himself. Brewster eventually confesses his responsibility in the killings to Suzanne, who betrays him to the police.
A small army of Houston policemen enter the Astrodome but fail to nab Brewster before he takes flight using his completed wings. However, as a human he cannot overcome his inherent unsuitability for flight. Exhausted by the effort, he falls out of the air, crashing in a heap on the floor of the Astrodome. The film ends with a circus entering the Astrodome, played by the cast of the film costumed as clowns, strongmen and other circus performers. The ringmaster announces the names of each cast member, finishing with Brewster, who remains crumpled on the floor.
Scenes and characters often allude to other films, some of which include the following:
This film marks the first feature produced by Altman's Lion's Gate Films. It was produced in association with Lou Adler-John Phillips Productions. Adler was from the music business and had previously produced the recordings of The Mamas & the Papas. John Phillips from The Mamas & the Papas co-produced the film and wrote the songs. The film was originally called Brewster McCloud's (Sexy) Flying Machine.
The film was shot on location in Houston, Texas for eight weeks from May 22 to July 15, 1970. The original story was set in New York City but it was decided to set the film in Houston. During the opening credits, shots of the downtown Houston skyline (with One Shell Plaza under construction) zoom toward the Houston Astrodome and Astrohall, with the emerging Texas Medical Center in the background. It was the first film shot inside the Astrodome. The film records landmarks and streetscapes that later were demolished or radically changed. For instance, the hotel where Frank Shaft stays was once part of the Astrodome complex, and has undergone several significant changes since the making of the film.
Although Doran William Cannon is given credit for the screenplay, most of the film was rewritten by Altman and close associates or improvised during filming. After the film's release, Cannon wrote a column for The New York Times detailing the frustrations of his experience.
Discovered in Texas, Shelley Duvall was cast in her first film role as Brewster's love interest Suzanne. She later co-starred in several of Altman's other films as well as playing memorable characters in films by other directors.
The film's premiere was at the Houston Astrodome on December 5, 1970. An audience of 35,000 was anticipated.
Critical reviews were mixed upon the film's original release, but have grown more positive over time. Brewster McCloud has a score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 22 reviews, with an average grade of 7.3 out of 10.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three and a half stars out of four and, comparing it to M*A*S*H, wrote that it was "... just as densely packed with words and action, and you keep thinking you're missing things. You probably are. It's that quality that's so attractive about these two Altman films. We get the sense of a live intelligence, rushing things ahead on the screen, not worrying whether we'll understand."
Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded three out of four stars and wrote, "Once again Altman has taken a story (this time a rather weak one) and given it a distinctive spirit and flavor thru casting, cinematic devices and odd juxtapositions. An Altman film, if two can make a genre, appears to be more of a mood than a story. This rarely works, but it does for him." Variety called the film "a sardonic fairy tale for the times. Extremely well cast and directed, Lou Adler's made-in-Houston production demands an intellectual audience which is satisfied with smiles instead of belly-laughs."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film "... has more characters and incidents than a comic strip, but never enough wit to sustain more than a few isolated sequences."
Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times believed that the film was "not in a class" with M*A*S*H, but opined that "I doubt that the new year will give us a more startling, bizarre and rowdy piece of business."
John Simon wrote, "Brewster McCloud is a pretentious, disorganized, modishly iconoclastic movie which, in the manner of its Icarus-like hero, aspires to fly high and merely drops dead."