HealtH (Robert Altman, 1980)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents HealtH.

criterion logoAfter the success of Nashville, Robert Altman once again tried his hand at political satire, predicting and spoofing the upcoming presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan by depicting the heated rivalry between candidates for the presidency of a health-food organization.  In a sun-drenched Florida hotel hosting the association’s annual convention, the battle between supporters spreads through Altman’s usually large cast of characters, an all-star ensemble including Lauren Bacall, James Garner, Carol Burnett, Glenda Jackson, Paul Dooley, Henry Gibson, Donald Moffat, Alfre Woodard, and Dick Cavett playing himself.  Mired in two years of delayed releases that effectively ensured that HealtH arrived in limited release to theaters dead on arrival, this wild and wacky parody of the political process exemplifies Altman’s exuberance, his extravagance, and his eccentricity.

Disc Features:

  • New high definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary with co-writer Paul Dooley
  • New interviews with stars Carol Burnett, Dick Cavett, Glenda Jackson, and Alfre Woodard
  • Galleries of rare production and publicity stills
  • PLUS: A new essay by film critic Robert Kolker, an excerpt of David Thompson’s interview with Robert Altman, and Vincent Canby’s review from HealtH‘s limited release in New York

Let’s be honest for a moment – HealtH is not the first film one thinks of when considering the expansion of Robert Altman’s filmography in the Criterion Collection.  And it’s certainly not our intention to propose a title that would get the kind of hostility often aimed at other Criterion titles like Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch (1980).  (For the record, we quite like Hopscotch and wouldn’t even consider HealtH the least of Altman’s Criterion films.)  HealtH does come with a fair amount of negative baggage, more in fact than it ought to have given how little seen the film has been.  Much of this probably has to do with the fact that Altman’s style is itself something of an acquired taste.  HealtH is in many ways a typical Altman movie with a large ensemble cast, a diffuse narrative, overlapping dialogue, and a mordant, challenging spirit.  In other ways, HealtH is an outlier representing the filmmaker at his silliest, at his most indulgent, and at his most combative.

HealtH is first and foremost a political satire and Criterion has always gravitated toward Altman’s overtly political films, including Nashville (1975), Secret Honor (1984), and Tanner ’88 (1988) in the Collection.  In HealtH, Altman uses a health-food organization’s convention and its two-candidate race for the organization’s presidency as a microcosm for American politics.  Talk show host Dick Cavett covers the H.E.A.L.T.H. conference (H.E.A.L.T.H. stands for “Happiness, Energy, and Longevity through Health”) and the battle between the avaricious octogenarian Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) and the overly earnest and uncompromising Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson).  Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett) attends on behalf of the White House to support the organization, but proves unable to remain independent after meeting the self-centred Brill and the intellectual Garnell.  Dr. Gil Gainey campaigns as an unrecognized independent candidate who relies on tricks like pretending to drown in the hotel pool to gain attention.  Politics is a dirtier game than cheap publicity stunts however, and HealtH offers all levels of political chicanery, mostly on behalf of Brill.  Harry Wolff (James Garner), Burbank’s ex-husband, works as Brill’s campaign manager, hiding Brill’s odder quirks (including severe near-sightedness and a tendency to slip at the most inopportune time into a recuperative sleep with her right arm aloft).  A more corrupt examples of the campaign process is one Colonel Cody (Donald Moffat), who claims to own both H.E.A.L.T.H. and the US Government and control its policies.  Cody hires Bobby Hammer (Henry Gibson), a specialist in political dirty tricks, to spoil Garnell’s campaign with scandalous rumours.  Altman is no less cynical in HealtH than in his other films, presenting politics as a shallow and unscrupulous game.

More than any of Altman’s films in the Criterion Collection thus far, HealtH is an unabashed comedy, one that resembles the kind of wackiness and absurdity found in films like Brewster McCloud (1970).  Garnell is ridiculous in her dour pontificating and Gainey is hilarious for his gimmicky hucksterism, but Lauren Bacall’s Esther Brill is the funniest of the candidates, an 83-year-old virgin who meaninglessly calls for conventioneers to “feel” themselves, hides her myopia with a blatant disinterest in others, and asserts that orgasms shortened lives by 28 days.  Granted, Burnett and Garner could have shouldered more comedic heavy-lifting, but Altman manages to stuff plenty of foolishness into HealtH anyways.  Gibson’s plan to discredit Garnell involves dressing up in drag, posing as a breast-feeding obsessed convention-goer, and suggesting to Burbank that Garnell underwent a sex-change operation after serving in the navy.  Colonel Cody’s ultimate turn is gut-busting and we’ll leave it at that.  Alfre Woodard manages to steal every scene she appears in as Sally Benbow, the hotel’s public relations director who mixes defeat and disdain in her assessment of the convention.

HealtH‘s greatest notoriety may arise from its status as Altman’s film maudit.  In the face of Altman’s declining box office with A Wedding (1978), Quintet (1979), and A Perfect Couple (1979), and a change in studio management, 20th Century-Fox delayed the film’s debut from March 1979 to January 1980, then to a summer release, and finally shelved it after test screening that led to the studio’s conclusion it was too uncommercial for release.  Altman became increasingly incensed, unhappy that the support offered by the studio in production had been lost once the film was in the can and frustrated that the film would miss the intended window of the 1980 US presidential campaign.  Altman responded by taking HealtH to the film festivals where, typical to Altman’s style, audiences proved divided on the film.  Critics like Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert would call for the film’s release, but HealtH would only find random television appearances in the years that followed and Altman’s career at Fox ended.  Aware of the fate that would befall Altman and HealtH, the halted 20th Century-Fox fanfare at the start of the film seems all the more apt.  HealtH never had a real opportunity to succeed or fail beyond its studio gate-keepers and has never had a hard media release as a result.  A Criterion Collection edition of HealtH might be an unusual one for the label, but it would fill a notable gap to a favourite American director’s filmography and do so with a star-packed ’70s ensemble.

HealtHThree final points on enjoying HealtH.  First, Altman’s film is an interesting document of the 1970s.  For most people thinking of classic ’70s cinema, a grungy New York or a disillusioned California immediately come to mind, but for the average person, the 1970s was a trendy, plastic, and mustard-and-pea-green coloured picture of middle class materialism and HealtH embodies that era.  Secondly, for those who take the time to watch the film, look closely at Isabella Garnell’s campaign logo.  Doesn’t that look just like Criterion’s wacky “C”?  In fact, it looks precisely like the disc art for a Criterion edition of the film.  Embracing Altman’s film and the period even more fully, we’d like to see this HealtH-y artwork adapted for a cover treatment despite having no idea about its origins.  Lastly, most critics suggest HealtH as a kind of companion piece to Nashville, and one could certainly make the same case with Secret Honor and Tanner ’88, but could we suggest a pairing with Todd Haynes’s Safe?

Credits:  Our cover summary is loosely adapted from the film’s summary for the Harvard Film Archive’s 2015 retrospective on Robert Altman.  With the esteemed Mr. Altman no longer with us, we’ve tapped co-writer and actor Paul Dooley to provide an audio commentary on the film, a decision not entirely without precedent as Criterion’s edition of Secret Honor features a joint commentary by Altman and co-writer Donald Freed.  New interviews with surviving cast members could provide insight on Altman’s indulgent-looking movie and on the various iconic performers who appear in the film and who are no longer with us as well.  Production photos do circulate on the internet and we guess that more likely hide in some archive, waiting to appear as a stills gallery.  Robert Kolker was selected to provide a booklet essay given his mindful and fair analysis of the film in his book Cinema of Loneliness (something rarely found in discussions of Altman’s work of the late-1970s) and for Kolker’s insight on the impact of HealtH on Altman’s career, contributing to his withdrawal from commercial filmmaking and resulting in the sale of his production studio.  David Thompson’s interview with Robert Altman in Altman on Altman includes a discussion on HealtH and so we’ve included it for an imagined booklet.  Vincent Canby of The New York Times seemed to be HealtH‘s most outspoken supporter and did so without denying Altman’s individual style or the ambivalent reception he seemed to inspire.  Accordingly, we thought it useful to include his 1982 article “Film View – ROBERT ALTMAN – AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.”

lauren-bacall-blogathonAnother big thank you to Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting us to participate in The Lauren Bacall Blogathon.  We didn’t get too much into Bacall in the above discussion, other than to note what a particularly funny character she creates in HealtH, and no doubt other bloggers will canvass Bacall’s career in greater detail.  Bacall had a more significant role in the film that let on above.  Altman specifically drew on the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential campaign to cast this political satire, lifting Stevenson’s actual speeches for Isabella Garnell’s sermonizing and finding inspiration for Esther Brill’s episodic catatonia in an incident of Eisenhower actually falling asleep during a speech.  “Betty Bacall” knew and supported Adlai Stevenson, even campaigned with him in the company of her husband Humphrey Bogart.  Bacall’s casting was surely no accident and we can imagine that this tough-as-nails “anti-Republican” from the Bronx was only too thrilled to lampoon Eisenhower and the Republican Party of McCarthy and Nixon.

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6 thoughts on “HealtH (Robert Altman, 1980)

  1. Joe Thompson September 19, 2015 / 3:57 am

    Somehow I missed this one in the theater. Thank you to Criterion for making it available. “Alfre Woodard manages to steal every scene she appears in” — this is not surprising; she has been good in everything in which I have seen her. I’m looking forward to the interview.

    • spinenumbered September 19, 2015 / 4:17 am

      I’m glad this post piqued your interest Joe, but I’m afraid HealtH isn’t yet available. MMC! celebrates our favourite films with imagined editions by Criterion, Drafthouse, and Arrow. Hopefully both our wishes will one day come true regarding HealtH! We couldn’t agree more about Woodard though – she’s always excellent.

    • spinenumbered September 25, 2015 / 1:25 pm

      Thanks very much. I fear that my plans to end October with a specific title will leave me focused on other things. Thanks for the invite, best of luck with the blogathon (I’ll be reading!), and please keep me in mind for your next one!

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