One of my favorite 1970s movie rarities was just released on DVD – Robert Altman’s trippy, chaotic, and sweet-natured Icarus riff Brewster McCloud (1970). It arrived in theaters after M*A*S*H and before McCabe and Mrs Miller to critical and commercial bafflement. As a longtime Altmaniac, I bought a VHS copy years ago and have seen it many times since. Altman never denied being a fan of Mexican hashish, and based on Brewster McCloud, I guess the south-of-the-border stuff really was more potent back in the day.
The movie stars Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude) as a teen inventor hiding inside the Houston Astrodome who’s working to create a pair of mechanical wings so he can fly. His guardian angel (literally) is Sally Kellerman, a sultry protector in a white trench coat who may or may not be strangling Brewster’s enemies and marking their corpses with bird shit. Cort is a limo driver for Stacy Keach, a scary old millionaire who shakes down retirement home dwellers and winds up stranded in his wheelchair on the freeway. Michael Murphy plays a blue-eyed, self-righteous San Francisco cop who investigates the stranglings but never has the slightest clue about what he’s investigating. Shelley Duvall (sporting fake eyelashes the size of tarantula legs) is a hippie-chick Houston Astrodome tour guide who falls in love with Brewster and figures out his aerial ambitions.
What holds Brewster McCloud together? Nothing but Altman’s trademark drifting, zooming camera genius and non-sequitur imagination, and that’s more than enough. The movie makes fun of nature documentaries (narrator Rene Auberjonois gradually turns into a giant bird before our eyes), crime procedurals, Steve McQueen movies, star-crossed love stories, and The Wizard of Oz. (Look for Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as a racist old Houston philanthropist). It fuses Altman’s wide-angle naturalism with escapist movie plot improv in an oddly joyful way.