There truly is no separation of church and state when it comes to a movie like Nasty Habits, a late ’70s comedy that remains in a classification of its own to this day. Inspired by the famously notorious exploits of a certain tricky American president (read: Watergate), this off-the-wall entirely different take on the nunsploitation subgenre centers on a little-known abbey in Philadelphia chock-full of vice and corruption. When its reigning head abbess dies before she has a chance to officially make her chosen successor public, Sister Alexandra (Glenda Jackson) decides the best way to assure her proper place is to wiretap the premises and set up surveillance cameras in order to keep an eye and ear on her competition, the even-less-conventional Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon) – who is having an open affair with a nearby Jesuit priest among other things.
When Sister Alexandra sends in two bungling Jesuit students (who eventually resort to blackmail) to break in and steal a number of incriminating love letters from Sister Felicity’s sewing box, their inexplicable theft of a simple thimble instead attracts the attention of every media outlet near and far when Felicity tries to blow the whistle on things – blowing the entire sordid affair up into an international exposé. The news even reaches as far as the Holy See in Rome, where the head monsignor (Eli Wallach) and his PR priest (Jerry Stiller) soon discover that the Abbey of Philadelphia is an unofficial order that will only give Catholicism an ever-worse reputation than it already has.
Melina Mercouri is the outrageous missionary nun who is just a satellite phone call away for bad advice, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, Anne Meara, and the hard-to-resist Sandy Dennis also star as more female parallels to real-life Watergate figures, and Rip Torn is one of the few male co-stars to actually appear onscreen with any of the main characters. Shane Rimmer (aka That Guy) also has a small bit (as usual) as a cop (as usual).
At its core, Nasty Habits is quite a smart and sinister satire of Richard Nixon’s finest hour to those who either remember the controversy or who are very well-educated on the matter today. And therein lies a major problem when viewed today: Nasty Habits is a very, very dated affair. In this ultra-technologically-savvy age of mandatory monitoring with electronic eyes and ears surrounding us at all times, the thought of installing hidden bugs in an abbey doesn’t seem too terribly far removed from reality. Nor does the thought of the media going haywire over what is essentially absolutely nothing at all (see: Justin Beiber). And so, this quirky once-topical comedy from Michael Lindsay-Hogg (living proof that Orson Welles is the gift that keeps on giving) based on Muriel Sparks novel The Abbess of Crewenow finds itself in that illustrious category of Stuff We’ve All Forgotten About.
Fortunately for those with a keen interest in actual past political scandals (as opposed to contemporary fictional ones, e.g. “Birthers”) or who just want to fulfil their innate desire to see the gorgeous Sandy Dennis in big-rimmed ’70s glasses (be still, my beating heart) can rest easy with this presentation of the all-but-lost film from the Warner Archive Collection. Making its DVD debut thirty-seven years after its initial theatrical run, the Manufactured-on-Demand disc presents the movie in an anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio that not only looks very ’70s (especially when Ms. Dennis goes galavanting about the city to pay off the abbey’s blackmailers), but also very good. A mono English soundtrack delivers the film’s snappy dialogue admirably.
Recommended to those of you who will actually get the humor.