The 20th Century-Fox executives who decided not to release Robert Altman's "Health" -- a sputtering farce conceived in satiric anticipation of the 1980 election -- had good reason to assume that it would flop.
In 1970 Fox released Altman's only big hit, "M*A*S*h," which led to a five-picture deal in the late '70s. "Health" was the last in the series, and its position had been jeopardized by the unpopularity of "3 Women," "A Wedding," "A Perfect Couple" and "Quintet." With at least four strikes against it, "Health" needed to be self-evidently brilliant to overcome studio resistance and live up to the expectations of the director, who must have envisioned it as a burlesque companion piece to his melancholy classic of 1975, the show-biz political allegory "Nashville."
Given this no-win background, it's natural to look upon "Health" rather leniently. Now sharing a one-week double-bill with "M*A*S*H" at the Capitol Hill Cinema and booked for two showings at the American Film Institute Theater the week of March 22, "Health" does not emerge as an abused masterpiece. Nevertheless, it has the makings of a more entertaining movie than Altman's other misadventures with Fox.
The setting is a huge pink stucco hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the annual convention of a national health-food organization is in progress. The chief item of business is the election of a president, and the plot revolves around the comic manipulations and misapprehensions of characters with a vested interest in the vote's outcome.
The leading candidates suggest archetypal Republicans and Democrats. Although the script evokes parallels to Eisenhower and Stevenson, the characters are jumbled composites. The front-runner is Lauren Bacall as Esther Brill, a cheerfully senile amalgam of Adele Davis, Lillian Gish and Ronald Reagan, the real thron-in-the-side of orthodox Hollywood liberals like Altman. Esther is a best-selling octogenarian whose robust appearance seems to belie her years. However, she has an alarming habit of freezing into catatonia while lifting her right arm to greet admiring throngs. This tendency demands some fancy footwork by her entourage, led by James Garner as campaign manager Harry Wolff, and timely injections by Ann Ryerson, a delightfully wistful strawberry blond, as a doctor named Jaeckel.
Esther represents the successful health-food establishment. The candidate of the high-minded, militant opposition is Glenda Jackson as Isabella Garnell, a flinty prig whose credentials include "advisory protein consultant to the U.N." There's also a third-party nuisance, Paul Dooley as a hotheaded opportunist named Dr. Gil Gainley who keeps complaining about media neglect while staging publicity stunts.
Carol Burnett, far more effective here than she was in "A Wedding," is cast as a would-be neutral observer from the White House, Ms. Gloria Burbank, whose partiality for the progressive outlook and rhetoric of Isabella Garnell inspires her to violate neutrality. She's also influenced by resentment of Garner, her ex-husband, and their tug-of-war in the general direction of reconciliation is the principal comic subplot. Dick Cavett, playing himself, is supposed to be covering the convention for his talk show, and Henry Gibson turns up as a dirty-trickster who attempts to persuade Burnett that her favorite is hiding a shocking secret.
The premise has funny possibilities, which fitfully evolve into funny moments, usually when Ann Ryerson is delivering a line or Carol Burnett is given an opportunity for hysteric slap-stick.
The bright aspects are ultimately overwhelmed by misfired writing and direction. The film keeps shifting its attack from the breezy to the scathing, and the script lacks the satiric integrity or authority to get away with the scathing tendencies. Altman's direction seems to impose perplexing notes of hostility on some sequences that should be merely droll or deadpan, and a few key performers, notably Bacall and Donald Moffat as a brusque intimidator who calls himself Col. Bill Cody, are painfully deficient in comic style.
There's also a peculiar element of artistic deviousness in the satire. The superficial targets may be political parties and elections, but the subtext flirts with a tangier source of ridicule: the infighting of politically ambitious women. Altman grew up in a female-dominated household, and he acknowledges that the experience has given him a peculiarly suspicious, ambivalent humorous outlook on the opposite sex. At bottom Altman seems to regard "Health" as an institution uniquely susceptible to the wills of domineering women.