Oh, my. We are right here in the thick of it, aren’t we? That would be an election year almost like no other, and too many of us thought the 2000 showdown was a circus. Not to mention a little thing called “Watergate” (i.e., the elephant forever in the room). Now, look where we are, but don’t worry. This is a movie column, not a political one, so I’m not about to leap onto a soapbox, but what about movies that are also political, you might ask?
Okay, I’m game. Well, I’m game in regards to one particular political film. See, between Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), which used high school student council campaigns to make a larger point about politics in general, and Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969), which viewed racism through the lens of corporate greed and one-upmanship, lies the masterfully wicked Nasty Habits, director Michael Lindsay Hogg’s 1977 re-imagining of the then still-recent Watergate scandal within the confines of a Philadelphia convent. That’s right, a cast of nuns, many portrayed by some of the era’s most acclaimed actresses. re-enacting the bad and the ugly of former President Richard Nixon and his bumbling accomplices during the 1972 election and the subsequent cover-up and investigation.
Based on Muriel Spark’s novella, The Abbess of Crewe (1974), Nasty Habits is definitely an acquired taste, but I love it, finding it appropriately savage as we expect from smart satire. Keep in mind that when the movie premiered in 1977, the events depicted were barely 5 years old and had more or less been chronicled with due dignity in 1976’s All the President’s Men, the Oscar winning adaptation of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Pulitzer winning investigative series on the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up. Even so, the events still made ripe targets for scandal, and setting the whole dirty business in a fiendishly yet matter-of-factly corrupt Philadelphia convent gave/gives it an appropriately brittle edge; after all, we expect more from nuns than we do politicians, especially given the massive popularity of, say, Lillies of the Field, The Sound of Music and the flurry of sisterly inspired movies and TV shows that followed in the 1960s, but, then, once upon a time, we probably expected more from politicians. Didn’t we? At the very least, we might have suspected the worst from our elected officials in Washington, but even though we knew unmistakably about corruption and, say, adultery, we hoped those to be isolated incidents and could still claim a certain degree of innocence regarding the highest office in the land, that is, the sanctity of it. Of course, when the Watergate story broke, and Spark set her sights on satirizing it, women weren’t as visible in the political arena as they are today, so that created a sense of tension in the text as well.
I ached to see Nasty Habits when I was a high schooler. At that time, thanks to the likes of Animal Farm and A Modest Proposal (per British Lit), and such TV shows as Saturday Night Live, All in the Family, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and PBS’s never-ending repeats of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I was keen on satire–what a concept!–and wanted a dose whenever and wherever I could find it. Alas, the movie was a hard sell, coming a few months on the heels of the brutal Network, and fizzled unceremoniously though it did have fans as highly placed as Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Pauline Kael of the the New Yorker, both of whom found praiseworthy elements in spite of some skepticism. Canby lauded the movie for being funny in parts, so much so that (for him, at least) the less funny parts were doubly aggravating. In other words, the so-called good parts deserved much much better. Kael, much more effusive in her review, delighted in the performances and commended the director, most famously known at the time for the landmark Beatles documentary Let It Be, on his deft work with the cast, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A few years ago I wrote that Nasty Habits was on my movie bucket list, but that all changed with the 2014 DVD release, and it did not, nor does not, disappoint. Almost any and every dirty trick that most of us remember about that particular era is right there on the screen, only twisted for maximum satirically induced discomfort. And fun. Now, I watch Nasty Habits just about anytime I want, and the time is ripe for discovery for those less familiar. Oh, and I also have the book in hardback.
Now, about that cast. If you’re reading this and think the whole idea of nuns engaging in such political skullduggery as tasteless at best and downright sacrilegious at worst, well, that’s certainly a concern. Maybe the film can be better appreciated using a different lens, and that would be the lens of formidable talent. Consider this: among its major players, the cast of Nasty Habits could–at that time–boast a total of 11 Oscar nominations with three wins, and multiple Tony wins and/or nominations besides, plus at least one Emmy celebrant. And they were all women. Think about that. As I have noted in a previous post, 1977 was some kind of wonderful for actresses. How wonderful was it? Well, it was so wonderful that Newsweek published not ONE but TWO cover stories that year, spotlighting exciting, meaningful new movies starring the likes of Sissy Spacek, Shelly Duvall, and Janice Rule in 3 Women, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, and Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point. See? Not just a single actress with a plum film role, but films with two or more leading ladies. Plus, as the following gallery so aptly demonstrates, Nasty Habits contributed to the trend as well. Please consider the following:
As the film begins, Sister Alexandra is close to being named successor to dying Abbess, Sister Hildegarde (Estelle Winwood). Alas, the elder nun dies before she can make the appointment official, thereby setting the story into motion as Sister Alexandra faces an election which pits her against young Sister Felicity, who already has the support of the novices but who also has an active libido she’d rather keep on the down-low. Thus, the righteous old guard, fronted, if not led, by Sister Alexandra, rallies a smear campaign to discredit Felicity and swing the election in Alexandra’s favor even if that means bending or even breaking a commandment or two. Yes, there is a break-in, with so-called plumbers, illicitly recorded conversations, and references to Machiavelli.
British born Jackson was right at 40 when Nasty Habits opened, and she had been on a roll for most of the decade. Never known for glamorous movie star looks on the order of, say, Julie Christie, Jane Fonda, or Faye Dunaway, Jackson had nonetheless conquered Hollywood through sheer force of talent, wowing her peers in the Academy with award winning performances in Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973), the latter, like Nasty Habits, produced through Brut Productions, yes, a subsidiary of the once fabled Faberge toiletries empire. In addition to her Oscars, Jackson also earned nominations for 1971’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (scripted by the New Yorker‘s Penelope Gilliat), and 1975’s Hedda, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; the latter a combined effort from Brut and PBS though, to clarify, released theatrically. Oh, yes she had also made quite a splash in the BBC series Elizabeth R, taking on the role of Queen Elizabeth I, garnering international acclaim, and, yes, an Emmy. She segued from Nasty Habits to the popular House Calls (1978) co-starring Walter Matthau and later reteamed with the actor for Hopscotch (1980). She also earned fine notices and award consideration for her portrayal of poet Stevie Smith in Stevie (1978) and earned an Emmy nod for playing the lead in a mini-series based on the life of actress Patricia Neal. To clarify, these are only the highlights. Her resume is exceptionally varied. Eventually, Jackson retired from movies and pursued a career in British politics.
As Sister Alexandra, Jackson never stoops to merely impersonating Nixon or goofing on his familiar mannerisms although one particular line of dialogue is an unmistakable beaut. Instead, she plays Alexandra as someone full of confidence and even self-adoration, high on her own cleverness and love of power though shielded by a veneer of soothing charity and calm respectability. She’s a smart cookie, cagey enough to manipulate people into doing her bidding from a respectful distance in order to evince plausible deniability in the process. This ranks among the shrewdest of Jackson’s work even if it’s not among her most popular. Canby labelled it the best thing she had done in years (at that point), coming off a less than successful Sarah Bernhardt biopic (produced by Readers Digest, no less), and Kael raved about Jackson’s “biting delivery,” adding that “She believes in nothing but herself, and appreciates her own refinement and aplomb. In Alexandra, snobbery achieves perfection.” Kael also describes Alexandra as both a “sacred monster” and a “romantic authoritarian.” High praise, indeed.
In real-life, Haldeman and his co-conspirator John Erlichman (dubbed “the Berlin Wall” by White House patsy John Dean) were eventually tried and committed on multiple charges, including obstruction of justice and perjury, for their roles in the Watergate cover-up.
At the time of Nasty Habits, Page was a five time Oscar nominee with no wins though that would change with the release of 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful, the Dallas based indie for which she earned her 8th nomination. She won her Academy trophy for Best Actress in the spring of ’86 and passed away in June of the following year. Interestingly, in spite of all those Oscar nods, Page was arguably better known as a theatre actress, especially for acclaimed performances in Tennessee Willams’ plays Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth (a Tony nomination, among a quartet, for the latter), both of which eventually netted Page Oscar nominations for their film adaptations. I’m particularly fond of Page’s tour de force as a movie star restless for a comeback in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). Alas, as splendid as she was in that flick, she was more than matched by Anne Bancroft, the victor for The Miracle Worker. Whew! What talent! The actress also earned two Emmys during her esteemed career (refer to IMDb). Incredibly, she netted her first Oscar nod for what was labelled a supporting turn in Hondo, a 3D western starring John Wayne. Besides the specific films listed here, her other Oscar nominations include: You’re a Big Boy Now (Best Supporting Actress, 1966), Pete ‘n’ Tillie (Best Supporting Actress, 1972), Interiors (Best Actress, 1978), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (Best Supporting Actress, 1984). Believe me, she makes the most of her limited screen-time in the latter.
One of my favorite scenes in Nasty Habits occurs early in the film when Jackson, Page, and Anne Jackson (see below) retire to their bathing quarters at the end of an eventful day. There, divided into private stalls, each with its own tub, the sisters begin the task of disrobing one cumbersome garment at a time though refraining from stripping down all the way before sliding into warm baths. What’s interesting about the scene, a part from watching these performers engage in dialogue while working through complicated bits of “business,” is seeing the characters’ personalities, their vanity, emerge when they’re free from their habits, secure that nobody is watching. In an instant, Page’s Sister Walburga experiences fleeting delight as her long hair cascades around her shoulders, greeting her newly free tresses like a long lost friend. One gathers that Walburga’s luscious locks are a secret she keeps from her fellow nuns who are much more modestly coiffed.
Among this star-studded cast, Anne Jackson was surely the least familiar, meaning that most of her best work appeared to be onstage or in episodic television rather than in films. For example, she earned a “Best Featured Actress” Tony nomination for Middle of the Night (1956), an Obie, the off-Broadway Tony equivalent, for The Typists & The Tiger (two one acts by Murray Schisgal that were eventually packaged as one film, The Tiger Makes Out, for which she recreated her stage role); she also starred on Broadway in the hit Luv–also by Schisgal–which Mike Nichols directed to great acclaim.
Per the previously mentioned scene in which Alexandra, Walburga, and Mildred retire to their bathing quarters, pay special attention to Mildred. The fact that she applies some kind of topical cosmetic patch to her forehead naturally reveals her vanity, but look closely at how she does it. The actress incorporates a sly visual detail that let’s the audience know that these characters should not trust each other. Of course, we know it, but they don’t, so we anticipate their downfalls.
Of course, I hate to second any casting director that manages to secure the talents of Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Page, Melina Mercouri, Anne Meara, and Sandy Dennis in one film, but the casting of Anne Jackson in this role has always been a puzzler. Oh, she’s fine, and she does have that nice bit of business in the bathing sequence, but I’m not sure she’s singular, either. Not-so–right-off-the-top-of-my-head, I can imagine that Barbara Harris (mentioned elsewhere in this piece) or Eileen Brennan might have provided a little more spark, so to speak, in this role.
Actually, Mercouri garnered second billing on this film, right behind Glenda Jackson, providing evidence of her star power though she is less essential to the plot than the characters portrayed by Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson. Younger readers (or moviegoers) might ask,” What’s so special about Mercouri?” Born in Greece, Mercouri dazzled audiences in 1960’s Never on Sunday, which teamed her with future hubby Jules Dassin. The actress reaped Best Actress honors at Cannes and later scored an Oscar nod. The movie’s inescapably catchy theme song actually landed a statuette for composer Manos Hatzidakis, from a total of 5 nominations including two for writer-director Dassin (who also played the leading male role). From there, she and Dassin segued to Phaedra (an update on Hippolytus by Euripides), for which she earned additional accolades, and then onto 1964’s larky heist-capade, Topkapi with Maximilian Schell and Oscar winner Peter Ustinov–still one of my favorite flicks and a must-see for anyone with fond memories of the first Mission Impossible installment directed by Brian de Palma, but I digress. Mercouri and Dassin made several films together, including 1978’s Medea-inspired A Dream of Passion.
Coincidentally, and much like Jackson, by the time Mercouri appeared in Nasty Habits, she had begun focusing on politics in her homeland and soon retired from acting. She served multiple terms as Greece’s Minister of Culture between 1981 and 1994, the year of her death.
Her Sister Gertrude, not especially admired by either Canby or Kael, is a hoot. At first, Gertrude is eager to help facilitate the impending election, but her efforts are rebuffed by Page’s prioress. Later, Gertrude finds it more prudent to distance herself from the erupting scandal and copters from one far-flung, absurd location to the next, either evading calls from Jackson and her team or simply speaking in non-sequiturs–like a true diplomat. She also delivers the sharpest line in the whole movie when she explains the difference between a problem and a paradox. Her storyline somewhat parallels Kissinger’s in that, while she no doubt accomplishes some good in the course of her actions, she’s also savvy when it comes to managing her identity, and that means steering clear of the evergrowing mess at the convent. Meanwhile, don’t forget that even as the Watergate scandal took on ever more crazy twists and turns, Kissinger still found time to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. In her review, Kael put forth the idea that Mercouri might have been hired based on her accent rather than her acting skills. Harsh, that, though it is certainly true that Mercouri’s strong Greek accent is more than a match for Baviarian born–Manhattan raised–Kissinger’s thick gravelly tonation. I have a theory, as well, that by hiring a famous Greek star to play one character, the producers were also able to make a not-so-subtle reference to another: former Vice-President Spiro Agnew who was also of Greek descent and who also generated plenty of controversy and/or concern during the Watergate years (please refer to the following profile of Anne Meara).
Meara’s character did not appear in Spark’s original novella, and that makes sense given that Ford was not a part of Nixon’s inner circle when reports of the Watergate break-in first circulated. During the investigation into Nixon and his crew’s alleged malfeasance, a separate outcry erupted over then Vice President Spiro Agnew’s charges of bribery, money laundering, and/or tax evasion. Agnew pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) and promptly resigned. Then, Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader at the time (and former member of the Warren Commission), to fill the position. Of course, when Nixon vacated his position amid all the impeachment brouhaha, Ford assumed the role of POTUS, filling the remainder of Nixon’s term, thereby becoming the only person to serve as both President and Vice President of the United States without the benefit of an actual election. He also has the distinction of a complete name switcheroo as his mother changed baby Leslie Lynch King Jr.’s moniker to Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. upon her early divorce and remarriage to the elder Mr. Ford. (Talk about an identity crisis.) That’s the history lesson.
For those, like myself, of “a certain age,” we’ll always have fond memories of seeing Anne Meara and husband Jerry Stiller work their magic on Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, along with scads and scads of other TV shows as the celebrated comic duo of Stiller and Meara. This lady wasn’t just funny, and she wasn’t even JUST hilarious. She was committed. A trained actress first and foremost, she had a gift for comedy–but the laughs came because she understood the value of characterization. Well, that’s my two-cents.
At the time of Nasty Habits, Meara had just come from switching gears with short-lived TV drama Kate McShane, groundbreaking in that it was the first series to portray a female lawyer as a leading rather than supporting character (and, again, a risk for a performer more known for comedy). For her efforts, Meara was rewarded with an Emmy nomination though, again, the show did not last a full season. I watched it–until I didn’t or couldn’t watch it. In her stellar–not Stiller-career, Meara actually earned four Emmy nominations (in comedy and drama categories), and a Golden Globe nomination (for a turn on the popular Rhoda sitcom). She also placyed a recurring character on the longrunning daytime drama All My Children. Her work in theatre includes four stints on Broadway, dating all the way back to A Month in the Country (1956) up to a 1993 revival of Anna Christie, for which she snared a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Additionally, she was no stranger to off-Broadway houses, with a whole string of credits. Furthermore, Meara also made her mark as a writer, winning an Outer Circle Critics Award for her play, After-Play AND a Writers Guild nod for co-writing, with Lila Garrett, The Other Woman, a made for-TV film in which she co-starred with Hal Linden. Her lengthy filmography include Lovers and Other Strangers, a pop-up in The Out of Towners, and, perhaps most famously, as the frustrated English teacher in 1980’s original Fame.
The ascension of Meara’s Sister Geraldine through the ranks is played for pure slapstick and encapsulates much of what was known about Ford: mainly, that he was an athlete, the star player on his college football team–and that, ironically, he turned out to be bit of a bumbler as an adult, taking a few notable tumbles during his time in office. In the early days of Saturday Night Live, still in its infancy when Nasty Habits premiered, Chevy Chase skyrocketed to stardom by parodying Ford’s so-called “klutziness.” Meara doesn’t flail quite as spectacularly, but she nails the laughs nonetheless. Pauline Kael wrote, “Anne Meara combines the brassy, gum-chewing delivery of the wisecracking gold-diggers of the thirties with the expressive gestures of a top banana. Everything she does is funny.” She provides broad laughs to offset the sting of brutal satire.
Sandy Dennis was one of the most exciting young actresses of her era. She first made her mark on TV, starting with daytime serial The Guiding Light when she was 19ish (circa 1956). From there she transitioned to an early film role in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass though never turning her back on the small screen; however, she also made a tremendous splash on Broadway, earning consecutive Tony awards for A Thousand Clowns (Best Featured Actress in a Play, 1963) and Any Wednesday (Best Actress in a Play, 1964). Shunned for the film adaptations of both hits (losing out to Barbara Harris and Jane Fonda, respectively), Dennis more than made up for those snubs when she was cast in the 1965 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (though, as these things go, her victory came at the expense of Melinda Dillon who’d played Dennis’s role–as Honey–onstage). Her screen clout established, Dennis signed-on to star as an idealistic teacher in Up the Down Staircase, yet another hit (I used to watch it almost any time it aired.) The likes of Sweet November and That Cold Day in the Park followed. In 1970, she co-starred opposite Jack Lemmon in the smash Neil Simon comedy The Out-of-Towners; both stars earned Golden Globe nominations. I saw the movie in theaters as a child, and most of us who did see it will never forget Dennis’s memorable variations of “Oh my God, George…”
Depending one one’s POV, John Dean was either the patsy or the turncoat in the whole sordid Watergate affair. Did Dean know about and even participate in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up? Yes, that much is a given, but over the course of the investigation, Dean also came to believe that he was being set-up to take the fall, and that’s when he began cooperating with prosecutors. His subsequent televised testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 made national headlines and seemed to run for days and days, interrupting many a school kid’s summer TV viewing schedule. Dean pleaded guilty to charges of obstruction and paying hush money, and served a short prison sentence, all the while working with prosectors building cases against Haldeman, Ehrichman, and John Mitchell, former Attorney General and Nixon campaign director (who does not have a Nasty Habits stand-in). Dean was also barred from practicing law and now works as an author and consultant. He was still in his early thirties during the Watergate years. I certainly didn’t think he was an old man back then even though I was still in junior high, but I didn’t realize just how young 30 can be.
And so it is with Dennis’s Sister Winfred, at best a provisional–easily expendable–member of the convent’s inner-circle A bit clueless at times, her hands are nonetheless dirty; thus, she seems the ideal stooge to take the fall for a cover-up that involves breaking and entering, theft, and, yes, paying hush money. But maybe she only appears clueless.
For my money, and Michael’s as well, for that matter, Dennis rivals Jackson for top honors in this enterprise. My memory is that numerous reviewers singled her out for praise though Canby was not amused, pretty much labelling her performance as inexcusable or something equally cringe inducing, yet as Kael observed, Dennis plays the part exactly as Spark describes in her novella’s second paragraph: “Sister Winifrede says in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks….” That’s the expectation right from the get-go, and Dennis runs with it, giving a performance of sweet comic perfection which Kael lauded as a form of bliss (comparable to watching the late great Jack Gilford), further stating that “she’s a feminine version of a Shakespearean fool–her stupidity is a form of enchantment.”
Of course, for all her early success, Dennis nonetheless had her detractors. As with Geraldine Page, the naysayers often complained that Dennis’s trembly mannerisms, a propensity for fidgeting and twitching, marred her performances. Nonetheless, she retained a modicum of popularity, assuming the female lead in the longrunning Broadway hit Same Time Next Year (filling the role originated by Ellen Burstyn). Indeed, Dennis’s stint in the play began just as Nasty Habits was hitting screens. Working as writer, actor, and director, Alan Alda cast Dennis in 1981’a well received The Four Seasons. Then, in 1988 Woody Allen hired her for a brief but potent role in Another Woman, fully taking advantage of of her fabled neurotic persona. In the late 70s, she weighed in as an early champion of Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, well before its brief–unsuccessful–1982 Broadway run and subsequent screen adaptation, a low budget indie hit, directed by Robert Altman and starring Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black (along with relative newcomer Kathy Bates). Her performance in that one, all nervous tics and quivery line readings, provides plenty of ammo for the skeptics, no doubt, but she hits all the right psychological or emotional notes of a woman slowly unravelling due to a lifetime of delusions and denial.
The “wronged” party in Nasty Habits, Susan Penhaligon as Sister Felicity, is a bit of a washout. The character is not compellingly written, an idealistic twit who doesn’t invite much sympathy, and doesn’t seem to necessarily parallel her obvious real-life counterpart, Senator George McGovern–Nixon’s competitor during the 1972 election. Worse, Penhaligon doesn’t seem particularly inspired. No “oomph,” there. Does anyone root for her?
Interestingly, Spark set her story in an English convent, but the moviemakers switched the locale to Philadelphia though much of the movie was shot in England, anyway. That’s right, England doubled for Philly. Maybe it is a conspiracy.
Also, referring to the previous observation that many moviegoers from my generation remember Meara from her numerous appearances with husband Jerry Stiller, a number of younger readers might only know her as the mother of Ben Stiller of Zoolander fame. Indeed, Meara made a cameo appearance as Winona Ryder’s potential employer in Stiller’s first outing as a feature film director, Reality Bites. Best line: “Define irony.” Again, I digress. The point is that Nasty Habits was truly a family affair, not only for Meara but also Page and Jackson as all three actresses’ husbands pop-up in small roles as well, that would be Jerry Stiller, Rip Torn and Eli Wallach, respectively.
Nasty Habits shows yet again that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Isn’t that the old saw? Moreover, the movie and the book are really a reflection of any of us, however improbable. A corrupt nun somehow seems funnier than a corrupt politician, but isn’t the point that if even a nun feels the thrill of power, then the rest of us somewhere in the middle should beware–not of “them,” but of us? We already know we’re not expected to be perfect or saintly, so where, when, and how do we draw the line? Questions for another day, perhaps. Again, maybe the best way to enjoy the movie is to simply bask in the glory of this amazing cast, playing “Nasty” to the hilt. Hallelujah.
Thanks for your consideration…
Vincent Canby’s New York Times review (19 March 1977):
Kael, Pauline. When the Lights Go Down. New York: Holt Reinhart, and Winston, 1980.
Kael’s review of Nasty Habits originally appeared in the February 21 issue of The New Yorker.
Spark, Muriel. The Abbess of Crewe. London: MacMillan London Ltd, 1974.
Note: If Spark’s name seems familiar, it’s because she’s more famously known for penning The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for which Maggie Smith won the 1969 Oscar for Best Actress.