It’s hard to believe that the rebellious Brewster McCloud (1970) and fiercely traditional Mame (1974) were released only few years apart from each other. I recently watched both films on new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive and marveled that they even came from the same decade.
I don’t think anything could match the perfection of Auntie Mame (1958), the first screen version of the story adapted from Patrick Dennis’ popular novel, but I’ve often wondered if Mame (1974) could have been at least a minor classic if the Broadway musical’s Tony-winning star Angela Lansbury had been cast in the lead. It would have at least been a lot more fun, as evidenced by Bea Arthur, who did get to reprise her Tony-winning stage role, and who steals every scene she shares with the miscast disaster that is Lucille Ball.
It’s endearing that Ball was determined to bring wholesome family films back to movie theaters, but unfortunate that she decided to be star instead of producer. To have observed Lansbury performing Mame on Broadway and take notes instead of admitting she owned the role takes a remarkable ego and lack of self-awareness and that is Ball’s greatest liability.
Ball is too old to play Mame, the actress who plays her mother-in-law in the movie is three years her junior, but much worse is the fact that she can’t carry a tune. As a result, her songs had to be patched together a few notes at a time. It’s still rough going making it through the many tunes she croaks in this lengthy film.
Aside from Arthur, the rest of the cast is decent, if not as snappy as in the 1958 film. The exception is Robert Preston as Mame’s Southern gentleman husband. He seems to have spent the seventies and eighties stealing scenes and brightening bloated films with his presence. Preston always had a special charisma, but in his later years he took on a more relaxed persona, seeming to enjoy the absurdity around him.
Mame deserves every bit of scorn it has received over the years. In addition to Ball's misstep in the lead, it’s too long and it often gets boring. That said, the costumes are gorgeous, Arthur and Preston are worth a watch, and there’s a sort of messy energy to it that won me over to a degree. It’s just barely an enjoyable fail.
The Blu-ray print looked good, though the film itself can be a rough watch since the lens seems to be slathered with something to make Ball look youthful. Vintage featurette Lucy Mame is included on the disc.
It's remarkable that Robert Altman’s brutal, demanding, hilarious, and raunchy Brewster McCloud (1970) was made four years before Mame. It’s a film as simple a boy who wants to fly, and as complex as all existence. There’s no way you can absorb what it has to offer in one sitting, even Roger Ebert admitted to that.
Brewster McCloud was Shelley Duvall’s first film, and she emerges with the best of her gawky wonder fully-formed. She’s such a mesmerizing presence that listening to her speak can put you under a spell. Her character glides through life without seeming to grasp reality, looking at the worst of life as unusual little happenings. She speaks with the cadence of Little Edie in Grey Gardens and the faux wide-eyed naivety of Marilyn Monroe, discussing an attempted rape like it was a minor inconvenience.
As the titular psychopathic dreamer, Bud Cort is a perfect fit for Duvall. He enters the action virginal, with rosy cheeks and childlike dreams, but he is fanatically self-absorbed. Still, you want him to break free of the banality of modern life, even if it would be nice if he could be more thoughtful about it.
Altman’s knack for assembling a pleasingly bonkers supporting cast is especially strong with McCloud. He has gathered a group of characters with complementary energies: the smooth calm of Sally Kellerman and Michael Murphy balancing the untethered quirkiness of Jennifer Salt and Stacy Keach (this man clearly relishes playing ridiculous roles). In essence they all refuse to play by the rules or face the consequences of rebelling.
It’s a glorious, bitter portrait of chaos that rejects convention, regrets it, and ends up laughing at everything anyway.