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HEALTH

USA, 1980 (MIFF 1981)

Director: Robert Altman

Health is Robert Altman in one of his broad fresco satires of American conventions. And here his subject is a convention — a health food convention in Florida. The script was written by Frank Barhydt. a freelance journalist who developed the idea while working for a health magazine. Barhydt spent three years travelling to health-food conventions all over America, gradually piecing the script together in his free time. "The convention is set in a garishly statuesque southern Florida hotel, and Altman (considering his satirical intent) somehow got some 1 00 health food companies to provide their wares in the film's highly detailed and immensely clever sets. Lauren Bacall plays a well-preserved 83 year-old health authority who claims she's stayed so remarkably fit (Bacall resembles herself off¬screen: there's no attempt to age her) by maintaining her virginity.

Bacall regularly lapses into catatonia, a condition signalled by the raising of her right arm which remains stiffly upraised. She's running for the presidency of the health foods organization that runs the convention. against a vaguely masculine cigar puffer (Glenda Jackson) with a fondness for Adlai Stevenson and taping her own conversations.

Carol Burnett is the film's real surprise She s first rate as a sexually frustrated White House health emissary sent to the convention to gladhand the Presidential candidates Burnett splendidly combines the sexiness (she's rarely looked better onscreen), temerity and political idealism of her character without forgetting that she's supposed to be funny. Dick Cavett plays himself in a supporting part, covering the convention for his TV talk show. Altman cleverly puts him in a hotel room on two occasions, lying in underwear and wistfully watching Johnny Carson. James Garner is appropriately droll as Burnett's ex-husband, a political public relations type hustling Bacall's candidacy Paul Dooley overdoes it a bit as a disgruntled, third-party candidate, but Henry Gibson puts in a very funny bit as a political dirty trickster who resorts to eavesdropping in elevators in drag. Altman shifts back and forth among this brood Nothing much is resolved and no big political statements are made. Altman has always been known as a director who gives much leeway to actors. That's a dangerous practice (John Cassavetes' films are a case in point), but with Health it works.

Altman's keen satirical eye gives the film shape and the quality of the cast takes it from there.

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