Out of the Past: Brewster McCloud

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Uniformed marching bands with twirlers. Red, white, and blue. Frustrated chauffeurs who can’t quite comprehend the world of their passengers. An arrival at the airport by charter plane, covered by an on-the-spot news announcer. The death and funeral of someone named Green(e). A reference to car racing. Some wild driving and a crash that brings many of the characters together. The more you look, the more similarities you find between Brewster McCloud and Nashville. Themes, motifs, devices, even characters and character relationships unite the two films. In each film, Shelley Duvall plays a naïve and sexually capricious free spirit, though in Brewster McCloud the impact of her affections on the men she favors is far more serious than in the frivolous flirtations of Nashville. In each film she takes up, at least briefly, with the son of a wealthy and powerful man: Bernard Weeks in Brewster McCloud is a sensitive and talented young man whose artistic inclinations have been stifled by his father, who has made him his business secretary—the same relationship, in fact, that Bud bears to Haven Hamilton in Nashville. In each film, too, Michael Murphy plays a visitor from California whose cool ways contrast sharply with those of the people around him, and whose comings and goings lend a kind of unity and purpose to the development of the film’s events. His escort, in each film, is a lovable but somewhat slow-witted man, whose home life we glimpse in a dinner scene (though Patrolman Johnson’s outrageous three sets of twin sons in Brewster McCloud contrast sharply in tone and intent with the two deaf children of Delbert and Linnea Reese in Nashville).

All these imagistic coincidences suggest similarities in more abstract areas as well; and sure enough, they’re there. Each film attempts a sweeping satirical commentary on virtually every major aspect of American life: sexuality, class-struggle, race relations, ambition, success and failure, economics, crime, politics, religion. The more obvious, less integrated Brewster McCloud uses original songs on its soundtrack to comment on action and character development, and counterpoints the loose, rambling structure of the film’s events with comment on philosophical and anthropological concepts from an anonymous Lecturer whose location and character never directly connect with the characters of the film’s story. Nashville‘s use of songs and the continuous comment of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign truck are, however, not significantly different—only a more successful integration of these devices into the film. The purpose of the devices is the same: to extend the meaning and significance of the film’s events to a larger scope, to link microcosm with macrocosm.

The same power of suggestion is accomplished in the locations chosen for the two films: Each film is set in a Southern city, a bastion of capitalism and of political conservatism. Key buildings are used as set and symbol: Brewster McCloud‘s Houston Astrodome is the home of football, baseball, and “The Greatest Show On Earth”; Nashville‘s Opryland is a forum for the musical equivalent of football, and its Parthenon is a metaphor for both America’s preservation and its overhaul of the principles of democracy and populism.

The People are all over both films, though the polarities that distinguish groups and classes are significant and apparent. Linnea Reese, whom Altman treats with wonderful kindness in Nashville, is nevertheless still a cousin of Miss Daphne Heap, the white lead singer with a black back-up group whose rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” opens Brewster McCloud. Miss Heap’s true bigotry pokes through her token philanthropy even in the first scene, as she demands perfection from her black musicians and twirlers: “I want everything exactly the way it should be. That’s why you’re in these uniforms. That’s why I bought you these uniforms!” Her true color shows starkest when she upbraids a raven perched on her cage of pigeons: “Get out, you nigger bird!” (Significantly, the bird thus associated with the black race quickly becomes the closest thing the film has to a Force for Good, the familiar of Brewster’s white witch Louise, whose ubiquitous watchfulness helps Brewster avoid harm, and eliminates his enemies, as he inches toward his destiny.) This true racial nastiness, which runs against the grain of Miss Heap’s superficial racial tolerance, is different only in degree, not in kind, from Nashville‘s more likeable racist types: Wade, the Black short-order cook, takes Tommy Brown, the Colored country singer, to task as “the whitest nigger in town”; and Del Reese, whose wife sings with a black gospel group and attends a black Baptist church, becomes embarrassed when Wade discovers him trying to talk his way into Sueleen’s pants, and snaps, “Didn’t yo’ mama teach you no manners?”

Shelley Duvall and Bud Cort

Nashville‘s characters couple more casually than those in Brewster McCloud. In fact, what Brewster McCloud is finally about is loss of virginity, and its attendant loss of idealism. The classic Freudian analysis of the flying dream as symbolic of the sexual urge is intriguingly subverted in the film, as Louise explains to Brewster that, for other people, “sex is the closest thing they have to flying. … As they grow, they turn more and more toward the earth, and when they experience sex they simply settle for it and procreate more of their own kind.” Brewster is different, she tells him, and he knows: He really will fly. As he nods off into sleep the film drifts into a montage of flight through cloudy blue skies, to the song “White Feather Wings.” It’s an overdone sequence, but one whose visual values point toward the final moment of Nashville, when the camera finally lifts our point-of-view above that overwhelming flag, stops down to bring blue sky into proper exposure, and then fades out. But that is the end of Nashville, and it’s only the middle of Brewster McCloud. Sex with Suzanne (the Shelley Duvall character) makes Brewster too much of this earth to achieve what the Bird Lecturer calls “that mastery of the air which is the result of the development of millions of years, acting on a self-contained mechanism of a living body.”

Brewster has three female satellites who represent different pressures on him, different responses to him, in the same manner that Barbara Jean’s three male satellites (Barnett, Kelly, and Kenny) represent different attitudes toward her. In each case, the central figure, around whom all the other characters of the film orbit, becomes an emblem of the aspirations, struggles, successes, and failures of the American Dream. Both Brewster and Barbara Jean, at the zenith of identification with all that is best and greatest about America, are destroyed. Society destroys its heroes? Perhaps. And perhaps it participates vicariously in the fall of the hero, and then revels at the passing of the myth. Both Brewster and Barbara Jean are survived by The People. Individuals yield to masses. The celebration of enduring community is the province of The People, not of individual heroes and minstrels. The circus parade that ends Brewster McCloud and the group singing of “It Don’t Worry Me” at the finale to Nashville celebrate resurrection, all right; but it is the resurrection of a community spirit at the expense of its heroes, not a resurrection of the fallen heroes themselves. Brewster McCloud, a more open, obvious, and laughable comedy than Nashville , is nevertheless a far more cynical, less loving portrayal of America and Americans. The difference between the two films is signaled in the fact that Nashville ends in the sky, while Brewster McCloud ends on the ground—or, more properly, the Astroturf?where Brewster’s broken wings and crumpled body lie in a twisted heap.

Brewster in the Astrodome

I think in coming years Brewster McCloud will be viewed increasingly as a prototype of Nashville. No other two Robert Altman films are so obviously and so completely the work of the same single organizing intelligence. Where this leaves the question of the screenwriter, I’m not sure. Doran William Cannon’s original screenplay Brewster McCloud bears only remote similarity to the final film, and it’s on record that the uncredited total rewrite of the film was by Brian McKay. To what extent, if any, McKay may also have been involved in Nashville, I can’t guess, any more than I have evidence to hand that Joan Tewkesbury may be an admiring student of Brewster McCloud. But one thing is certain: These are both Robert Altman films. Altman saw and influenced both screenplays. The finished films—which are finally all we have to go by—are his work.

It’s evident that Altman is doing—and trying to do—many of the same things in Nashville as in Brewster McCloud. He does them better in the newer film, of course; but I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that Brewster McCloud is mere ‘prenticework, a failed attempt at Nashville. Rougher-hewn and less committed than Nashville, Brewster McCloud is patently the work of a less mature, less experienced cinematic genius. But a genius nonetheless.

BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970)
Direction: Robert Altman. Screenplay: Doran William Cannon (rewrite: Brian McKay). Cinematography: Lamar Boren, Jorden Cronenweth. Art direction: George W. Davis, Preston Ames. Editing: Louis Lombardo. Music: Gene Page; songs: John Phillips. Production: Lou Adler.
The players: Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, John Schuck, Jennifer Salt, Shelley Duvall, William Windom, Corey Fischer, Bert Remsen, G. Wood, René Auberjonois, Stacy Keach, Margaret Hamilton.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here