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If Nasty Habits is remembered now, it's as "a re-telling of the story of Watergate... but with nuns." It was plugged with a poster (reproduced on the disc cover) that makes it look like one of those European 'nunsploitation' porn movies of the 1970s. But the source of this comedy is the much less salaciously titled book The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale. Author Muriel Spark also wrote the famous The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the source of the film version starring Maggie Smith. The mildly irreverent Nasty Habits has star power as well -- the real reason to see it is to enjoy a score-plus of great actresses having fun in a clever farce. Glenda Jackson has a field day as the paranoid Nun who takes the place of Tricky Dick.
The old Abbess Sister Hildegard (Edith Evans) has died without naming a successor, which leaves the politics in an obscure Philadelphia Abbey of the Order of St. Benedictine in confusion. An election must be held. Sister Alexandra (Glenda Jackson), the acting leader, draws her close aides prioress Sister Walburga and chief of the novices Sister Mildred (Geraldine Page & Anne Jackson) into her confidence. Because the paranoid Alexandra has bugged parts of the Abbey and is making tapes of everything (including her own meetings), Alexandra has become aware of a popular challenger to the office of Abbess. The un-traditional Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon of Soldier of Orange) says that she wants to turn the place into a "Love Abbey". Power-mad and contemptuous of the nuns under her command, Alexandra gives her nun-operatives Walburga and Mildred exact instructions to discredit Felicity, but also commands them to pretend that she knows nothing of what's going on. Felicity should be easy to smear because she's carrying on a sex relationship with a novice from a nearby Jesuit seminary run by Father Maximillian (Rip Torn). It is arranged for two more Jesuit seminarians to break into the Abbey to purloin Felicity's love letters from her sewing box, but Felicity lays a trap and they're caught red-handed. Felicity screams conspiracy but the incident is discounted and the resultant awareness of the letters allows Alexandra to easily win the election. The irate Felicity then leaves the order. She pickets in public to protest Sister Alexandra's outrages, the media pick it up, and the 'break in' at the Abbey becomes nationwide news. Alexandra becomes even more paranoid when the Jesuit burglars blackmail her to keep silent about the crime. The loyal but awkward and literal-minded Sister Winifred (Sandy Dennis) is dispatched in to perform the payoff -- but is busted by the police. The word reaches The Vatican, where a Monsignor in charge (Eli Wallach) confers with a P.R. Priest (Jerry Stiller) to decide what to do. As the scandal zeroes in on Alexandra, she deflects the culpability for her acts onto her fellow nuns. Should the 'unthinkable' happen, she sets up the politically clueless Sister Geraldine (Anne Meara) as her successor.
Anyone familiar with All the President's Men will have fun seeing how Muriel Spark shoehorns the Watergate particulars into this tale of crooked doings among a group of nuns. St. Benedictine's has a rigid power structure, and it's amusing to see such a revered institution as a hotbed for plots and intrigue, just the way we sometimes imagine our own workplaces as a microcosm for a crooked conspiracy (I once worked for Cannon Films, where there was no difference at all). Everybody wearing a habit seems intent on sneaking about pulling off dirty tricks. Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson gleefully warm up to their roles as co-conspirators, while Sandy Dennis is all nerdy responses and open-mouthed stares as the gawky, adorable Winifred. Sizing Winifred up as an all-purpose fall guy (fall nun?), Alexandra asks her to sign an open-ended: "It's just a formality". Winifred later surprises everyone by pulling off her own slick extortion gambit to get it back. A John Dean with a dumb look on her face, Dennis plays Winifred very broadly and still comes out ahead.
Operating mostly outside the story is Sister Gertrude (Melina Mercouri), the globetrotting powerhouse negotiator that Alexandra often calls for advice. Gertrude is obviously Henry Kissinger, and like him isn't implicated in Alexandra's schemes - the revelations of Kissinger's own misdeeds hadn't yet occurred. Busy brokering major charity and peace deals in Africa and South America, Gertrude hasn't time to get involved. Eventually Gertrude sees the need to distance herself from Alexandra as well. As the out-of-the-loop Gerald Ford figure, Anne Meara's ditzy foot soldier mans the telephones and keeps the faith.
The pleasure of watching so much talent play comedy makes Nasty Habits fun in and of itself, even if most of the fun is just seeing nuns do silly things. We also question exactly what the film is saying. When the book was new, it was lauded for taking the serious Watergate facts and revealing their absurdity - but Nixon's White House doesn't need exaggerating to be seen as a comic opera, a tragic farce. Nasty Habits' silliest scenes are less funny than what happened in the White House. Sister Alexandra talks about 'scenarios' instead of admitting she's plotting crimes, and entreats all around her to accept the fantasy that she's not involved. Her 'helper' nuns stupidly stick with her even as she prepares to betray them. Only later would the phrase "throwing someone under the bus" be invented. Walburga and Mildred try to destroy the incriminating audiotapes, but Alexandra irrationally believes that they will exonerate her. The film inserts the line, actually from much earlier in Nixon's career, "You won't have Sister Alexandra to kick around anymore!"
Viewers (and readers) looking to see a fair political accounting in Nasty Habits will have definite reservations. Alexandra is just like Nixon and shares all his vices. Much like Muriel Spark's Jean Brodie, she seeks to create a mythology around herself. What made Nixon a tragic fool is that he didn't have to pull dirty tricks to win the election, but his actions were guided by pure paranoia and the lust for power. Alexandra would most likely win as well but she instead sabotages herself by using the same crooked methods she's used all her life.
But the opposition is not a good parallel. Sister Felicity preaches liberal values like Nixon's foe George McGovern, but she's also engaged in a sex affair that breaks fundamental rules of the Order. McGovern was associated with no moral scandals, and after losing the election certainly did not go on a crazy publicity campaign to destroy Nixon. Taken literally (and how else can one take it?) Nasty Habits' skewed view of the 1972 election is not at all amusing. 1
Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (the suppressed Let it Be) has made it known that his producers re-cut his movie. He keeps his actresses front and center but can't do much with Melina Mercouri's material, not only because the foreign settings aren't credible, but in her heavy eye makeup Mercouri isn't either. We do enjoy seeing the two married couples Anne Meara / Jerry Stiller and Anne Jackson / Eli Wallach in the same movie, although neither couple has scenes together. 4 Nasty Habits lacks a particular visual style or directing approach to add another layer of satire, which a stronger director might have contributed. Thirty-five years later, political scandals are so much more brazen that the 'crimes' seen here are almost nostalgic. It's not like these nuns are involved in any of the terrible scandals we now associate with the Catholic Church. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Nasty Habits is a good enhanced widescreen encoding of this overlooked bit of quality satire from the late 1970s. Color is fine and the dialogue is all very easy to hear. There are no extras.
1970s news folk Bill Jorgensen, Jessica Savitch and Howard K. Smith do realistic news appearances for the film, and at one point Felicity goes on the Mike Douglas show to plead her case. I definitely remember seeing the ads with the photo of the nun with the sexy leg, and thinking that audiences would assume this is a dirty movie in bad taste.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nasty Habits rates:
1. With its image of Sister Felicity as a sex-crazed radical, Nasty Habits reveals itself as unfair to George McGovern and American liberalism in general. But the film is even more cruelly unfair to progressive Catholics. In the early 1960s the Second Vatican Council directed a wider role for nuns, allowing them if they should so choose to end their sequestration and become more directly involved in their communities. Many orders stopped wearing habits and some moved out to live more like normal people. Many of the orders that took the Second Vatican Council at its word found that their local church superiors were against change of any kind, and weren't about to allow nuns (women) to have any say about their function in the Church. Some orders were cruelly disbanded, and their dedicated nuns expelled. They were condemned as radical revolutionaries against the old order, for doing as the Pope recommended.
I think that conservative Catholics would interpret Felicity as representing the liberalization movement that followed the Second Vatican Council. She's a sexual revolutionary, a loose cannon dedicated only to her personal pleasures. Of course she shouldn't be in charge of an Abbey. Beyond its clever jokes and wonderful acting, Nasty Habits unfairly disparages people whose dedication and sacrifices should be rewarded. It may make fun of Nixon, and even grossly misrepresenting his opposition is fair game, politically speaking. But I hope I'm not taking it all too seriously when I remain sensitive to the slur on the dedicated nuns that were wrong in a now mostly forgotten church crisis.
2. I'm reminded of a scene from the Tom Hanks gangster drama The Road to Perdition, which I relate here in the hopes that footnote #2 does not lead readers to think that I have a religious axe to grind. Catholic gangster Hanks needs to send his young son to a safe place, and knows that his own local Priest is in cahoots with a rival mob. Hanks tells his boy "To go see the Presbyterian minister and stay there until I come for you - don't go to Father Ryan!" At screenings of the movie the line got a huge laugh. Just a few days before, yet another Catholic child molesting scandal had broken, and it was still big news.
4. A Correction from correspondent Neal Liebowitz, 11.15.14:
Hi Glenn -- The cast of Nasty Habits features not two but three married couples; you forgot Geraldine Page and Rip Torn (their mailbox was marked "Torn Page.") Thanks for all your entertaining reviews and columns. Best regards, Neal Leibowitz
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T'was Ever Thus.
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