aka: Happiness, Energy And Longevity Through Health
USA (105 mi) 1980 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
Altman goes straight for the jugular with this one, a carnivalesque satire on political hysteria, another example of the director assembling order from the mass chaos on the movie set, as there are few moments in this film where there aren’t a half a dozen things happening at once. Set entirely on the grounds of the upscale Don Cesar Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida, the events take place at a health convention where rival candidates Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson are vying for the presidency of the organization. Bacall as “the first lady of health” is hilarious as a wind up doll who raises her arms triumphantly as she espouses one catch phrase or another, often repeating them, each time to applause and fanfare before running out of energy where she sits motionless in the exact same position until someone winds her up again, while Jackson keeps spouting historical speech phrases from a bygone age about the glories of democracy, every word of which is ignored as she may as well be reading off the back of a cereal box for all the interest it generates. Bacall may be Altman’s take on Ronald Reagan reading from the teleprompters, who was just about to be elected President while they were making this film, while Jackson was the dour and humorless voice of the Democrats, personified by the decency of Adlai Stevenson, a man who droned on endlessly about public virtues but who put everyone in the room to sleep, where parts of Jackson’s ramblings were supposedly taken directly from his speeches. Stanley Kubrick made the most scathing use out of Stevenson, making him President in DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), where that is the biting sarcastic tone of this film where everything in politics is fair game.
The end of the Carter era represented the rise of special interest groups, self-serving organizations taking themselves a bit too seriously, lending themselves to buffoonery and political parody, shown dressed up as a variety of fruits and vegetables, often seen as little more than celebrity seekers, where Altman delights in showing just how far these groups will go for attention. Each candidate has handlers who prepare them for the television cameras and their public appearances, while behind the scenes are lowlife characters paid to perform all the dirty tricks. One such character is the smooth talking opportunist James Garner, Bacall’s campaign manager who continually pulls her out of the public’s eyes when she’s wound down, while another is Henry Gibson in drag trying to spread some dirt on Bacall’s opponent, suggesting she is really a he. Joining the fray is Carrol Burnett as a Presidential emissary on health, filling in for the previous emissary who was discovered dead. The three are brought together by TV broadcaster Dick Cavett, playing himself as a talk show host covering the convention, seen through a hotel window lying in bed every night and gleefully watching his arch rival Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, who attempts to interview the candidates while all around them are singing groups, marching bands (The Steinettes!!), and anyone else seeking their fifteen minutes of fame, all vying for the audience’s attention, so the mayhem and confusion on the set is reminiscent of the burlesque era of the Marx Brothers at their most undisciplined. Despite the confusion, there are well written zingers in this one that fly fast and furious, but also exaggerated caricatures, like Donald Moffat as Colonel Cody, the spitting image of Buffalo Bill, a zillionaire who goes on a right wing rant about owning not just the convention, but the government itself, believing everybody works for him, “Lady, you have told me what I wanted to hear. Your are for real. That means you are no threat to anyone,”or lengthy improvisations that seemingly come out of nowhere, like Alfre Woodard as the black public relations director of the hotel, the only woman of sanity in the entire film, suddenly thrust into one of Cavett’s interviews, or Jackson’s ditzy secretary, Diane Stilwell as Willow Wertz, another typical dumb blond, but this one has no feelings in her vagina, so she’s never had sex. But of course, neither has Lauren Bacall, claiming she’s an 83 year old virgin!! It’s all pretty ridiculous, but that’s the point.
Even with all the hoopla and non-stop frenzy, somehow, despite all the staging theatrics, with its multi-stranded plotlines, cast of thousands, and clever use of layered dialogue, where the film is this close from turning into a full-blown musical number, Altman actually has a handle on things just as they are on the verge of spinning out of control. The title actually comes from the slogan Happiness, Energy And Longevity Through Health, using a health food convention as a stand-in for the often sleazy and underhanded practices that occur during an election year, where lying becomes the universal truth, so long as it’s properly packaged, where everything is an illusion, a manipulation of words and images, as even Colonel Cody is not the right wing zealot he would have us believe, but is instead Lauren Bacall’s crazy brother, where the health food convention is followed by a convention of hypnotists. Twentieth Century Fox studios wouldn’t release this in an actual election year, finding it too controversial, and after a series of financial setbacks refused to distribute it altogether, so it sat on the shelf until Altman took it to colleges and film festivals, eventually releasing it himself two years later in 1982. It has a similar history of no video or DVD release, supposedly due to music infringements, but Altman himself wrote the lyrics for one of the songs used, “Chick and Thin,” while another, a jingle called “Exercise Your Right to Vote” was a theme song used in a later Altman film, TANNER ’88 (1988). However, the sounds of political convention music are heard wall to wall throughout this film, like “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “The Grand Old Party,” “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” or “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” none of which received musical clearance. On June 12, 1982, President Ronald Reagan watched the film at Camp David, where in his diary he called it “the world’s worst movie.” Released in the same year as Spielberg’s E.T. (1982), which became the highest grossing film in history, the age of the director was over, as blockbusters altered the landscape by changing the whole business of film finance. For Altman and others, including Martin Scorsese, in the 80’s it became more difficult than ever to finance their films.