Robert Altman Retrospective: HealtH (1980)
HealtH (1980) was the film which ended Robert Altman’s relationship with Twentieth Century Fox, the studio for whom he had made M*A*S*H. It came after a decline in box office returns for each of his previous three films for them – A Wedding, Quintet and A Perfect Couple. During the editing of the film Altman’s main supporter, Alan Ladd Jr., left the studio and release was shelved. Altman distributed the film himself to the festival circuit. Fox then gave it some preview screenings in Los Angeles and it was released in Germany and the U.K. It has also had a few television screenings, including one in widescreen on the Fox Movie Channel in 2010. But it has never been released on VHS, DVD or BluRay and thus remains one of the least seen of Altman’s ouvre. This is unfortunate as it is a very entertaining film, even if it falls short of its ambitions as a political satire.
Altman shot HealtH all in one location – the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida – with a budget of only $6 million. He realized the poor box office of his previous two films had put him on shaky ground. The film is one of Altman’s string of portraits of organizational insanity, which also includes films like M*A*S*H, A Wedding and Pret-a-Porter.
The action takes place at a conference being held by a health advocacy organization called, appropriately, HealtH. The initials stand for “Happiness, Energy And Longevity Through Health.” The central purpose of the conference is to elect an new President. The two principal candidates are – Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall), a woman who claims to be an 83 year old virgin and who falls asleep with her hand up in the air at the most inopportune of moments, and Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson), a self-impressed windbag who gives long speeches stolen from Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, which she invariably tapes. Representing the President of the United States at the conference is Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), a last minute replacement for a superior who died suddenly. Her presence is not welcomed by Esther Brill’s campaign manager, Harry Wolff (James Garner), who just happens to be Burbank’s ex-husband. There is also an independant candidate for the presidency, Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley, who co-wrote the script for the film with Altman and frequent collaborator Frank Barhydt.) Gainey complains that the other canditates represent only the extreme right and extreme left of the political spectrum, and that what the people really need is someone like himself who represents the “extreme middle”. But it becomes clear that his main interest is in publicising “Vita-Sea”, a powdered kelp health food, even if he has to resort to a cheap stunt like pretending to drown in the hotel pool to get the media’s attention.
The main representative of the media in the film is real-life talk show host Dick Cavett, playing himelf. The film begins with him interviewing Burbank and the two main candidates. And the film pokes fun at him by showing him each evening in his room watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, his major real-life rival.
While the film takes a shot at flaky health fads, the real focus of its satire is on the mechanics of the two party political system and its surrounding media circus. The one brilliant idea in the film was to use a health conference as the setting for a depiction of a body politic which is anything but healthy.
Unfortunately, this idea is realized with a general lack of subtlety. There are a lot of eccentric characters in films like M*A*S*H and The Wedding, but we can believe in them as real people. In HealtH, with the exception of James Garner’s Harry Wolff and Sally Benbow (Alfre Woodard) (the hotel’s African American public relations manager), everyone is an absurd caricature of the type you might expect to see in a National Lampoon movie. And, while the film accurately reflects some of the absurdities that regularly occur as part of the political process in the United States, it won’t leave you with any new insight into the nature of that process the way that Altman’s later film Secret Honor might.
The portrait Altman gives of the political process is a typically jaundiced one. Each canditate is insane, a con artist or a hypocritical blowhard. In fact to a greater or lesser extent all three of them would appear to be all of those things. And success goes to the one who does the least to confuse an intellectually challenged electorate.
This film is worth seeking out for three reasons. It is at times very funny, including lots of dumb slapstick involving people dressed up as giant vegetables. And it’s a unique expression of Altman’s vision and sense of fun. But, perhaps, most of all, it has a cast filled with actors who are always a joy to watch. This includes Donald Moffatt as Colonel Cody, a man who claims to be the power behind not just the convention but the Presidency of the United States and who seems to have modelled himself on Buffalo Bill, and the amazing Henry Gibson as cardsharp and political dirty tricks expert Bobby Hammer, who ends up donning drag in order to undermine Burbank’s support of Garnell by convincing her Garnell was once a man.
On June 12, 1982, Ronald Reagan watched the film at Camp David. In his diary he called it “the world’s worst movie.” What better endorsement could there be?