Now substitute Bud Cort (“Harold” of Harold and Maude) for Icarus. Turn overprotective dad Daedalus into castrating Mom (Sally Kellerman). Make those wax and feather wings into mechanical ones. Then substitute the Houston Astrodome for the Sun…and wallah! Robert Altman’s oddball ornithological opus Brewster McCloud!
Actually, it’s a little more involved than that. You see, there’s also this rash of stranglings plaguing
wherein the victims are found covered in bird shit. So super cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) is called in from Houston (and, judging from those turtlenecks, the set of Bullitt) to apply his unorthodox methods to the case (i.e. squinting a lot, poking at the bird shit with a pen). Meanwhile, the likely culprit Brewster, a quiet virgin with a bird fetish who lives in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, is designing a pair of wings which he plans to use to take flight. That is when he’s not doing 230 pull-ups to the near-orgasmic delight of his girlfriend who he has yet to bed. You see, estranged Mom Sally Kellerman (bearing two strange wing-like scars on her back) has warned him that if he “gives it up” to any girl, he will never be able to “get it up” flying-wise. This isn’t really a problem for the asexual Brewster until…well…enter Shelly Duvall. San Francisco
Confused yet? Don’t be. This is the type of movie that doesn’t really operate on normal logic. It’s madcap 70’s satire to the hilt. You just let Altman’s no-holds-barred experimenting lift you up and take you for a ride, like a helium-high you never want to end. And knowing what happened to that Icarus guy and the No-Sex ultimatum…well, you don’t want to think about the crash landing.
From what I’ve read, this is supposed to be Altman’s personal favorite of all his movies. I can see why. This one came out on the heels of his break-out success with M*A*S*H, so he was given free-reign to go wild creatively. And go wild he did. He straps on those wings and flies for the Sun, narrative cohesion and character identification be damned. And did I mention the bird shit? Lots and lots of bird shit.
Did Altman fly a little too close to the Sun? For my tastes, no. But it was obviously too close for MGM who hated the movie and buried it in a few theatres on its release, thereby relegating it to the video grave yards. Shockingly, this one is not on DVD yet, only hard-to-find laser disc and VHS. So clean-closet-be-damned! I'm keeping my nice letterboxed VHS copy for now. This movie's way too giddily inventive for me to just relegate to the trash heap. And then of course to see it covered in bird shit...the irony would just be too much.