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A Habit Worth Breaking

Nasty Habits directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg at the Sack Cheri Theater

NOTHING IS SACRED ANYMORE; what with Watergate and the ongoing protest of radical priests in America, both politics and religion seem to be becoming tagged as code-words for corruption and cover-up. Cynics increasingly view both church and state as homes for the fanatically ambitious, who brandish the Bible and the Constitution indiscriminately in their struggles for power. Politicians now supplement arm-twisting with prayer, while prelates and deacons have perfected the art of political infighting.

So if the congressman and the priest are cut from the same cloth, a take-off on Watergate that uses a religious framework should have great potential. But Michael Lindsay-Hogg's film Nasty Habits relies too much on an ornamental frame--the format of transplanting the Watergate scenario to a Philadelphia convent--and leaves only a blank canvas for content.

IN THIS UNSCATHING satire, Glenda Jackson is running for abbess of the convent against Felicity (Susan Penhaligon), a young nun who preaches a platform of free love. With the help of her Haldeman-Ehrlichman like cronies (Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson), Jackson engineers a scheme to record her rival's conversations and steal love letters from her sewing basket. Naturally, the Jesuits hired to filch the evidence are caught in the act, and the nuns decide on cover-up rather than confession.

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The rest of the story seems all too familiar. The press investigates the scandal, Jackson digs her own grave, and she finally declares in Nixonian fashion, "You won't kick me around any more." Although Nixon's 1962 retirement proved to be a false alarm, Jackson's statement luckily appears more reliable; her last line is followed by the closing credits.

Nasty Habits, because it depends only on this one gimmick to carry the script, stimulates less excitement than a choir of singing nuns. Based on such a well-known story, the movie leaves no room for suspense. When the action drags, it makes little difference whether the crooks wear habits or five o'clock shadow. Nothing new emerges about the Watergate fiasco--except that it is difficult to make an entertaining film out of it. Robert Ender's screenplay, an adaptation of Muriel Spark's novel The Abbess of Crewe, manages only to trivialize the scandal, and any profundity about absolute power corrupting absolutely is lost beneath gossamer one-liners.

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Much of Spark's subtle irony is converted to heavy-handed attempts at humor. Mocking the pretentious religiosity of the nuns, Enders portrays them as hard-drinking, smoking, and cursing women. Life in the convent is by no means bacchanalian, but Jackson still insists on drinking Chateau Lafitte Rothschild to excess. And Enders assumes that it is inherently amusing to show nuns talking about "screwing" their enemies as well as the neighborhood Jesuit priests. Instead of mordant commentary, Enders employs cheap shots.

But at least Lindsay-Hogg can avoid doing penance for his selection of the cast; it's an all-star line-up. Jackson perfects a controlled deadpan; she achieves the Nixon scowl without the jowl. As a John Dean-like scapegoat, Sandy Dennis physically resembles a cross between the bespectacled Dean and a chipmunk in desperate need of orthodontic work. Mentally, she comes closer to a rodent in a behaviorist experiment as she blindly obeys Jackson's commands. Dennis impersonates Dean's monotone well, but her lines lack the variety to make her part interesting rather than grating.

Anne Meara manages to chew gum and act at the same time as a Gerald Ford figure; her role is amusing, but it fits poorly into the narrative. Playing Kissinger with a Greek accent, Melina Mercouri advises Jackson from abroad, using a portable phone to check on the abbess' progress. It is funny once or twice, but not as a running gag. Still, there are few problems with the acting save the occasional air of embarrassment from the nuns who deliver the poorest lines.

Another blessing is Doug Slocombe's quick eye for creating atmosphere with his roving camera. In a single shot, he shows the bustle of inner city Philadelphia, then contrasts the street with an aerial view of the majestic abbey. His close-ups of the stained-glass windows in the abbey's chapel are particularly delicate. And his lens remains clean throughout; the scandal unfolds crisply through film, without the usual smokey scenes of conspiracy.

BUT FOR ALL the aura of political and technological complexity about this film, it still appears that Lindsay-Hogg and Enders used a butcher's knife to chop Spark's novel to pieces. Maybe Nixon should have gotten his hands on this film and erased is most tedious segments. Even if he only managed to cut out eight-and-a-half minutes, he would have saved a few souls from some of the unimpressed boredom that is this year's filmgoer's hell.

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