VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on our city’s illustrious (and occasionally notorious) past. Many of these features have appeared in the Catalyst over the past two years, and new stories will be added as time goes on. This one was originally published in February 2019.
When filmmaker Robert Altman and a cast of A-list stars set up camp at the Don CeSar Hotel in 1979, everyone went – briefly – berserk. It’s always exciting when Hollywood comes to Anytown, USA to make a movie, and the community, along with the media, rolled out the red carpet for Altman, Lauren Bacall, Carol Burnett, James Garner, Glenda Jackson, Dick Cavett and an enormous crew.
Writing in the St. Petersburg Times, Roy Peter Clark called their arrival “The biggest thing to happen in St. Pete Beach since the Great Hurricane of 1921” and, after watching a few minutes of daily footage, predicted that Health, as the unconventional dark comedy was to be called, “will rank with M*A*S*H and Nashville among Altman’s greatest films.”
Forty years later, almost nobody has seen Health. After a disastrous debut in California theaters, 20th Century Fox – which spent nearly $6 million making the movie – shelved it. It appeared, briefly, at film festivals and on TV in the early 1980s.
President Ronald Reagan arranged a private screening at Camp David, and pronounced it “The world’s worst movie.”
To date, Health has never been made available in any home video format, streaming or pay-to-watch service.
In recent years, high-profile titles including The Infiltrator, Magic Mike and the Dolphin Tale films were lensed, at least partially, in Pinellas County. And longtime residents still talk fondly of a mid ‘80s hot streak that included Ron Howard’s Cocoon, and the John Candy comedy Summer Rental.
Like Nashville, A Wedding and others in the Altman oeuvre, Health is a sprawling film that features an ensemble of main characters, overlapping storylines and a central plot that meanders through sight gags, romances, red herrings and the often ridiculous.
Cavett, playing himself, is shooting an episode of his chat show at a beachside convention of health-food suppliers, business-people and assorted kooks. The governing organization, HealtH (“Happiness, Energy and Longevity Through Health”) is electing a new president – the candidates are a narcoleptic octogenarian (Bacall) and a bloviating windbag (Jackson), neither of whom makes a strong case one way or the other.
Altman said later that the film, which would have come out during the 1980 presidential election, was a political satire. Bacall’s Esther Brill was supposed to represent Dwight D. Eisenhower, while Jackson’s Isabella Garnell was Adlai Stevenson (indeed, sections of Jackson’s tiresome speeches were lifted from Stevenson’s real-life pronouncements). Its intention was to lampoon politics, commercialism, the “health food craze” and the media.
Are we laughing yet?
The main characters (at least those with the most screen time) are Burnett, as “White House health specialist” Gloria Burbank, and James Garner as Harry Wolff, her ex-husband, who just happens to be there as an assistant to Bacall’s eccentric health maven.
This should have ensured something surefire. Garner’s The Rockford Files was one of the hottest shows on TV in 1979, and Burnett’s much-loved variety show had only recently gone off the air.
The company arrived in March. Health, it was announced, had a budget of $5.6 million and was scheduled for a seven-week shoot, all of it at the Don CeSar. During a press conference at the hotel, Burnett – who had previously starred with Health screenwriter and cast member Paul Dooley in Altman’s A Wedding – was quick to bring up the Equal Rights Amendment, which had not yet been ratified by the Florida legislature.
“I’m down here primarily for the ERA. I couldn’t care less about Mr. Altman,” the ebullient actress exclaimed, to a round of laughs from the local media.
“I wanted to come because I want to work with Bob any time that I can, and it’s fitting in beautifully because this is an important time for Florida. I’ll do whatever I can.”
Media reports noted that Jackson, the Academy Award-winning British actress, looked “uncomfortable” during the press event, and barely spoke a word.
Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, remembers those star-studded days well. “Because the venue was the Don, you couldn’t block it off,” he says. “And so it was a very, very public shooting. There were a lot of people around. I walked around the Don – and even though I was covering, I don’t remember even having to show a credential.”
He remembers passing screen legend Bacall, wearing an “old lady smock,” her hair in curlers, in an upstairs hallway.
Altman’s production company had taken over the entire hotel; interior scenes for Health were shot in various suites and convention rooms.
Because he wrote extensively about the production in the Times, Clark was given access to Altman – and, over time, to the above-the-title stars – for exclusive interviews. He was smitten with Bacall.
Despite his perceived status as a cheerleader, Clark says now, he saw warning signs that Health was maybe, possibly not going to pull through.
At Altman’s invitation, he sat in on a screening of the auteur’s most recent films, including the futuristic Quintet, starring Paul Newman.
“It’s when I saw these other movies that I realized something not-so-good was going on,” Clark says. Quintet, he realized, “was derivative. It was really, really weak Bergman.”
It dawned on Clark, at that moment, that Altman was spreading his talents too thin by making too many movies in a row. Health was his 15th feature in as many years. What was the rush?
“My terrible prediction about Health, in 1979, came from the cast – how could something with Glenda Jackson, Carol Burnett, James Garner, Lauren Bacall, Henry Gibson and Dick Cavett go wrong? And with one of the great American filmmakers?”
How, indeed? The full movie is available on YouTube – watch it here, if you dare – and Altman scholars agree it represents the filmmaker at the nadir of his gift – it’s long, and it’s talky and it is supremely unfunny.
Interestingly, except for a few long shots of the unmistakable pink exterior and rooftop minarets, very little in the film can be identified as the Don CeSar. Health could have been shot in any big hotel – you don’t even see much of the beach – in any other Anytown, USA.
After a brief public dust-up with the local Teamsters about transportation costs (“They make their own contracts – it’s blackmail”), Altman finished Health two weeks ahead of schedule, declaring on the last day of filming that the shoot, and the St. Pete community, was “superb on every level. I wouldn’t have one single complaint.”
It was reported that $2 million had been pumped into the local economy.
During his squabble with the union, Altman met with Florida governor Bob Graham. Among other things, they discussed the possibility that the director would make his next film, Popeye (with Robin Williams), in the state.
Production on Popeye, in the end, went to Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, and Altman never returned to Florida. It would be a dozen years before his career would go on the upswing again, with The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park and Pret-a-Porter. He died in 2006.
Viewed as a time capsule of St. Petersburg Beach in the 1970s – hundreds of local folks appear as extras in the movie’s many convention scenes – Health does have some redemptive value.
And Roy Peter Clark got something substantial out of the experience.
“Our youngest daughter, Lauren, was born in 1980,” the writer explains. “She had been Renee for quite some time in our planning, my wife and I, until I got to interview Lauren Bacall. She was fantastic. I think I was overwhelmed by her glamor.”