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  HealtH Poll Position
Year: 1980
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Carol Burnett, Glenda Jackson, James Garner, Lauren Bacall, Paul Dooley, Donald Moffat, Henry Gibson, Diane Stilwell, MacIntyre Dixon, Alfre Woodard, Anne Ryerson, Margery Bond, Georgeann Johnson, Mina Kolb, Allan F. Nicholls, Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: This swanky Florida hotel by the ocean is hosting a convention peopled with representatives from the health food industry, who happen to have arranged an election to see who will be the next leader of their organisation. There are two candidates, the eighty-three year old Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) who is seen as the right wing of the collective, and Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson), on the left wing, and it appears to be a close race with the winner decided on the last day of three. However, both candidates have their drawbacks, as Esther tends to go off into minor seizures of which she has no recollection, and Isabella is so wrapped up in herself that she records her every word on tape...

HealtH was a film which suffered terribly, barely receiving a proper release in cinemas and more often to be sighted on occasional showings on television since a home video release never happened, ostensibly because of music rights issues, but possibly just as much because there was a very small market for it. Both the problem with it and its greatest asset was its director Robert Altman, as he was considered a liability at the box office once he had enjoyed the cult hit of Nashville in the mid-seventies which had translated into a run of flops, of which this was one. Altman had his coterie of fans who wanted to see everything he had ever helmed, though as the man himself observed "A cult is not enough people to make a minority".

Nevertheless, although among those fans who saw it this was dismissed as a misfire, a Nashville Lite if you like, it was apparent it informed his classic television series Tanner '88 as HealtH doubled as an allegory of the current political run for office that was underway about the time this was shot. Unfortunately, it looked like yesterday's news once it had made it to the public, and President Jimmy Carter's administration had been bulldozed out of history by the Ronald Reagan juggernaut which caught the mood of America for the entire eighties. No matter how sharp and savvy Altman and his writers were here, the election was well past its headline generating best and the satire playing out here came across as irrelevant. Naturally, that makes the film all the more interesting from a historical perspective.

The idea that a political campaign is essentially meaningless when the two candidates don't represent anything except a lot of money that the public will rarely see was more pointed by the twenty-first century, its snarky humour more true to these times than it was back in the early eighties, and Altman was blessed with an excellent cast who were adaptable to his loose, jazzy, improvisational methods. Along with Dick Cavett as himself (and poignantly ending the evening alone with The Johnny Carson Show), two TV stars were notable among them, first Carol Burnett who was already a legend of small screen comedy and was very effective as the Presidential aide dispatched to attend the convention, but even better was James Garner, just finishing his role on top detective show The Rockford Files and easing into less physical personas as Esther's campaign manager.

Garner's immense charm achieved many of what laughs there were as his customary rogue was turned shameless womaniser, and funnily enough the only character who actually has a pretty good idea of what is going on, having played the political games and knowing the ins and outs. It is he who recognises Henry Gibson's professional troublemaker, who shows up later in drag to try to persuade Burnett's Nervous Nelly that Isabella actually used to be a man, believing such a revelation would gift the election to Esther. Bacall played the octagenarian virgin with some gusto, always keeping you guessing when she was about to go into one of her seizures, and Jackson was just as good as the intelligent but offputting weirdo; Paul Dooley, who had a hand in the script, was the unofficial third candidate and essentially a snake oil salesman whose big idea is demonstrating how long he can hold his breath underwater in a very Altman-esque example of humour. Showing how sowing confusion in the voters is instrumental in winning, HealtH was lightly underrated. Music by Joseph Byrd.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Robert Altman  (1925 - 2006)

Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.

Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.

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