NUNSENSE

Of the movies and television that have reconstructed the Watergate fiasco, my favorite is Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. Set in a Philadelphia nunnery, and based on Muriel Spark’s satire The Abbess of Crew, it’s a delicious little mockster that didn’t do very well back in 1977, having come after the overrated, chiaroscuristic All the President’s Men, which used an unnamed Judas to make us feel good about the press. (A timely catharsis of sorts, its grungy-grim dramaturgy is now unwatchable; it’s as paranoid as its target.) Nasty Habits, however, is extremely watchable; attacked by many for being an offender of Catholicism and a format to mock Nixon, it’s a burlesque that still works for lots of reasons: Geraldine Page as Haldeman, Anne Jackson as Ehrlichman, Melina Mercouri as Kissinger, Sandy Dennis as John Dean and, as the best Nixon previous to Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Glenda Jackson. Watching these scene stealers cavorting in habits is like discovering a treasure; listening to all of them paraphrasing is like finding that the treasure is solid gold. In plotting to affix blame for “the break-in,” Jackson decides to implicate a black nun and Page, eternally Beguiled, excitedly agrees by saying in the inimitable Page manner, summing up generations of whitey bigotry, “You know those black chicks.” (This line sometimes gets edited out for network viewing.) If Grayson Hall’s “Don’t make me take steps” in The Night of the Iguana ranks high in the annals of movie admonishments, Mercouri’s “shoulds and should nots” are not far behind. The comical travesty of N H wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is without Jackson. Her Nixon is uncanny, tilted to disturb on various levels, the most obvious being the famous Nixon loner imperialism, his unearned haughtiness, his terseness in speech and manner. This isn’t heavy handed impersonation, like we got from Rip Torn in Blind Ambition, and it’s not the effervescent demon of Jason Robards’ portrayal in Washington Behind Closed Doors. Jackson gets the hard-boiled covering of Nixon down so pat that sometimes, briefly, Nixon’s impenetrabable persona seems to suddenly appear. Spooky, and meant to be, because at times, when Nixon was publicly emoting, he scared the hell out of us because we hadn’t a clue as to what he was really feeling. The movie is too short to get into psychology—that’s territory for movies like Oliver Stone’s Nixon—but Jackson isn’t afraid to show us the slippery side, and she achieves this through crisp, ultra-sharp enunciation that is like hot ice. Male actors playing Nixon go for the cold too, but the performances become Tricky Dickey as caricature. Jackson’s scenario isn’t “just the usual confession,” it’s hypnotic. When  the movie was originally released, there was still an ecumenical reverence for the Catholic Church—it had just lost Pope Paul and in short order John Paul I—and that helped doom it at the box office, especially in the heartland and Nixonian conclaves. Catholic or not, people weren’t ready to see the Church used to mock the still raw emotions of Watergate, and that Spark used nuns to do it had more than a few smarting. Years later, we’re a lot more skeptical and a lot less respectful. Fitting, Nasty Habits is a bit like The New Yorker in MAD drag. (After having been unflatteringly profiled during her father’s state funeral, can you imagine what MAD might have done to Tricia Nixon-Cox’s nose?)

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