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By Phil Hall | July 25, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 243: “Health” (1980 Robert Altman film starring Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson and Carol Burnett).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: 20th Century Fox has never made the film available for home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible, but not immediately likely.

I’ve put off writing about Robert Altman’s 1980 feature “Health” for the longest time, simply because I am not a fan of Altman’s work and I was afraid that I could not give the film a fair shake. That being said, I can add that I am unaware of anyone who is a fan of “Health,” which could be categorized as the worst film created by the late filmmaker. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that “Health” is among the worst films created by any filmmaker.

“Health” came at an odd time in Altman’s career. He hit a peak in 1975 with “Nashville,” admittedly one of the great artistic triumphs of the 1970s. But having peaked, Altman had nowhere to go but down, and the remainder of the decade found him turning a skein of expensive flops: “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” (1976), “Three Women” (1977), “A Wedding” (1978), “A Perfect Couple” (1979) and “Quintet” (1979). “Health” (sometimes spelled “HealtH” and “H.E.A.L.T.H.”) was shot in early 1979 and it was supposed to be 20th Century Fox’s Christmas release for that year.

But between the production and scheduled release of “Health,” 20th Century Fox saw a major management change. The old management was not particularly fond of the film, but they were aware of Altman’s prestige and the box office potential of the all-star cast he gathered (more about them in a minute). However, the new regime that took over liked the film even less. The movie was never theatrically released, which was highly unusual for a major film from a major studio.

So what was the problem? For the most part, “Health” is a sloppy, sprawling would-be satire of the American political system. The film was meant to be released opposite the 1980 presidential elections, but Altman curiously declined to do full frontal attack on that process. Instead, he cloaked the parody amid the hullabaloo of a health food industry convention, which was in the process of electing its own president. There are two main candidates – an elderly incumbent (Lauren Bacall) and a verbose challenger (Glenda Jackson). Some critics saw these characters as distaff stand-ins for Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, but their personalities are so far removed from the well-known quirks of those 1950s icons that such a suggestion seems odd. Plus, there’s an independent gadfly candidate (Paul Dooley) who buzzes about the convention, trying to get attention for his campaign – and there was no 1950s version of such a presidential political candidate.

The real president (the White House variety) is represented by a deputy staff advisor on health issues (Carol Burnett), who is at the convention to relay a message that the Commander in Chief is genuinely interested in health issues and wishes everyone good luck. She is the ex-wife of the incumbent’s chief political advisor (James Garner).

The health food convention takes place at a Florida hotel, where the harried public relations manager (Alfre Woodard) is trying to keep all of the eccentric guests happy). There’s also a backgammon hustler (Henry Gibson) who showed up to fleece some of the fitness nuts of their cash. And Dick Cavett (playing himself, rather humorlessly) is on hand to capture all of this for his TV talk show.

So what’s the problem? For starters, Altman tries to reinvent his “Nashville”-style of filmmaking in “Health” by having a tapestry of offbeat characters zigzagging their colorful stories in and out of a seemingly plotless film. But whereas “Nashville” was rich with genuinely fascinating characters, “Health” is stuffed with one-dimensional boring stereotypes who have little to offer in the way of genuine interest. It says very little when genuinely likable actors like James Garner, Glenda Jackson and Lauren Bacall are stuck so far adrift that they are unable to float the film on their well-honed charisma. Even Dick Cavett, an erudite TV presence, comes across as monotonous.

In the course of “Health,” Lauren Bacall’s character announces the secret to her good health is virginity – orgasms take months off your life. Paul Dooley mistakes Henry Gibson for a male prostitute. And poor Carol Burnett tries to get a laugh by screaming over the discovery of a dead body in a swimming pool (yeah, that’s really funny!) while a man dressed like a tomato jumps into the swimming pool to save her (even funnier!).

I cannot offer a full review of “Health,” since I shut off my bootleg DVD copy about 35 minutes into the film. This is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It is so badly written, badly directed and badly acted that I am amazed it was ever allowed to see the light of day. This film has absolutely no redeeming features – it is truly (pardon the expression) a piece of crap.

“Health” cost $6 million to produce, which was a lot of money back in 1979. You can imagine the reaction of the 20th Century Fox chieftains when they sat through this plotless, witless, hopeless jumble of a movie. It is no wonder that they would not show it in public.

According to Roger Ebert, the original Christmas 1979 release was kicked back to an Easter 1980 premiere. Easter came and went without “Health” getting any screen time. An announcement pegged a premiere in the summer of 1980 at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles, but nothing came of that. Altman told Ebert: “Norman Levy (head of distribution) hasn’t returned my calls for seven weeks).

To add pressure to get the film released, Altman hosted a Los Angeles screening in September 1980. But the studio did not budge and kept “Health” in the proverbial can. “Health” was never shown publicly until April 1982, when a standalone limited release was arranged with New York’s Film Forum, the major art house venue for the Big Apple. I assume this was arranged under a contractual agreement between the studio and the director that would require some sort of theatrical exhibition.

However, by this time Altman had already added “Popeye” to his list of big budget flops and no Hollywood studio would touch him. He was already on his road to exile in low-budget indie filmmaking, where he spent the 1980s and the first part of the 1990s. The 1982 New York screening of “Health” brought the ultimate backhanded compliment from Vincent Canby, the chief critic of the New York Times: “By all conventional standards, ‘Health’ is, I suppose, a mess, but it is a glorious one in the recognizable manner of a major filmmaker who sometime gets carried away – by his subject, by his own enthusiasms and those of his actors, and by the collaborative creative process he loves.” Canby also hinted that the Reagan White House hated the movie, but it is not clear how or even why ol’ Ronnie and his pal would even be interested in this enervated dud.

20th Century Fox couldn’t give away “Health” if they wanted to, but they didn’t want to. The film was shelved and mostly forgotten, until Altman’s reputation enjoyed a resurrection in the late 1990s. In recent years, the film has turned up on the Fox Movie Channel. But the studio has refused to make it available for home entertainment release. To date, it remains among the very few Altman films that never turned up in commercial video or DVD release.

Bootleg copies of “Health” are not hard to locate, and the quality of these offerings is fine. But unless you are an Altman completist, there is no intelligent reason to seek this one out. Truly, “Health” can make you sick!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure

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  1. Paul Sineath says:

    He didn’t have a “list of big budget flops” or big budget anything, he was known for the low cost of his productions. Popeye was his biggest budget film IIRC and made triple its money back.

  2. Ray says:

    A friend recorded this film off a TV broadcast years ago and I have seen it. (And not that it matters [it really doesn’t], but I am an Altman fan.) It is NOT the worst film I’ve ever seen. The only takeaways for me is that where one might prefer the satire to be sharp, here it is quite dull. And that goes for the film, too: It’s just boring. There’s a sense of being adrift, wanting to laugh, to stay engaged, but it simply doesn’t hold together, despite the excellent cast.

    The reviewer is only half right about Altman’s career arc: His FIRST peak was in 1975. He came back strong with Short Cuts and The Player (both excellent films) and then had a minor third return at the end of his career (Gosford Park).

  3. Trinka Tansley says:

    If anyone knows where a copy of this film might be, we residents near where the film was show would love the opportunity judge for ourselves. This would be very educational, if nothing else. Please let me know if someone can direct me to a copy of this film; I’m glad to purchase it!

  4. Mark Heidemann says:

    I also find it interesting that recently filmmaker and pretty strong authority on film, Martin Scorsese gave out his list of 85 essential films. They include several Altman films INCLUDING H.e.a.l.T.H

  5. Mark Heidemann says:

    What a shame this article has made it onto this site. Snarky and ignorant, the reviewer has a clear lack of understanding of Robert Altman or his art. I enjoy this site but this review is utterly pointless and serves no other purpose than to make visitors to your site question whether they should continue reading articles here.

  6. Thomas E. Reed says:

    I feel like I’ve been played the same way I was played by Woody Allen. I watched every Allen film that came out, up to “Interiors,” because so many people proclaimed that he was a great artist and the only American still making funny movies. That last film cured me of Konigsberg Syndrome and I’ve avoided him ever since.

    I never watched “M*A*S*H” theatrically until I’d seen and appreciated the first season of the superior TV show. And yes, I was disappointed in that film. But then, “Nashville” was called “the damndest thing you ever saw” in the ads, and I saw it twice – to try to see if it had some depth or meaning hidden in the pile of improvised character bits. It almost seemed to.

    But after “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” it became clear that Altman was throwing random bits of filmmaking against the wall to see if something stuck, and if it could be called an artistic collage. Robin Williams got me to see “Popeye,” but that was the last time I was interested in anything Altman did. The poor reviews of “Health” kept me far away, and it looks as if I finally learned something.

  7. Martel732 says:

    Had the displeasure of enduring this stinker on the old “CBS Late Night Movie”,sometime in the early-mid ’80s. Yeeesh!

    Never been an Altman fan ,either; Yes, his “style” was unique.But he’s proof, that even if you achieve a truly unique style of film making as he did, it still doesn’t automatically mean that that style,or the films are ipso facto “great”.But you’ll never convince his snobby worshipers of that, you;’ll instantly be slandered as a square,a rube, go-back-to-your-Michael-Bay/Jerry-Bruckheimer-shoot-em-up-explosion-fest-crap,etc.

  8. Edgar Soberón Torchia says:

    Even if you warn the reader at the beginning of your note, it is a pity that you wrote about something you shut off “about 35 minutes into the film”, and then repeat something in the line of the not-very-clever Ronald Reagan: “This is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen”. It is also a pity that Americans that at least can write as you, have not become aware of the highly respected place Robert Altman has among film theorists all over the world. As someone else has written in IMDb, this film “deserves to be seen, as do ALL (and I mean ALL) of Altman’s films, ‘sucessful’ or not: he is undisputedly one of the masters of cinema of the late 20th century (and early 21st) and his entire body of work should be made readily available”.

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