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.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
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!
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