Time has diminished much of the charm that the UK/US coproduction Nasty Habits might have possessed during its original release, because the satirical analogy the film draws between its storyline and the events of the Watergate scandal now feels contrived and tenuous. After all, the picture depicts the dirty tricks that an ambitious nun uses to win election to the office of abbess in a Philadelphia convent, and her nefarious techniques include an elaborate bugging system. In the late ’70s, when the details of Nixon’s White House bugging system were still fresh, the humor of Nasty Habits could have seemed pointed and sly. Seen today, the film thrives on its own merits, rather than as a commentary on current events, and those merits are slight.
The picture’s main character is shrewd Sister Alexandra (Glenda Jackson), who leads a contingent of older, conservative nuns. Her rival for the abbess position is Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon), a pretty young blonde having a sexual affair with a Jesuit priest. Alexandra tasks her underlings with gaining incriminating evidence, so they obtain tape recordings of Felicity defying church doctrine and fomenting sedition. Not only does Alexandra win the election, but she also ejects Felicity from the convent. Upon resuming civilian life, however, Felicity launches public attacks against Alexandra, eventually becoming a folk hero for challenging a powerful institution. This turn of events triggers the movie’s closest parallels to Nixon, because reporters demand to hear Alexandra’s secret recordings, and her defiance to release them imperils her status.
Polished in most technical regards and populated with fine actors, Nasty Habits goes down smoothly whenever the focus is Alexandra’s machinations. Jackson purrs complicated dialogue with mesmerizing authority. Complementing her are Anne Meara and Geraldine Page, who play Alexandra’s main co-conspirators. Less effective is Sandy Dennis, who plays a bumbling nun tasked with performing goofy undercover work. As for the bits with Penhaligon as Felicity, indifference seems the appropriate response. She’s spunky but unmemorable, and her character isn’t sufficiently sympathetic to energize the story. Moreover, the whole Nixon allusion is questionable because Alexandra isn’t an unhinged paranoiac like Nixon, but rather a smooth operator—so when Alexandra caps the movie by paraphrasing one of Nixon’s most famous quotes, the intended satirical flourish doesn’t quite connect. And that insufferably chirpy musical score by John Cameron? No thanks.
Nasty Habits: FUNKY