Philip Roth has stated that "satire is more rage transformed into comic art." In 1971 he chose to excoriate Nixon's politics in an outrageous spoof called Our Gang. Muriel Spark's 1974 novella The Abbess of Crewe offered a more palatable satirical commentary on the Nixon White House. In this film adaptation of Ms. Sark's book, the locale has been shifted from England to the United States and scripter Robert Enders has added a few touches which could just have well be omitted. But this comic tale about corruption in pious places still packs moral wallop
The Watergate debacle hovers in, with, and under Nasty Habits as we learn about the nefarious goings on in a convent outside Philadelphia. Following the death of the old abbess, a campaign for the position begins between Sister Alexandra (Glenda Jackson), a self-serving and vain nun, and Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon), a free-thinking young nun who believes in love feasts of the sexual kind. Aided by her two henchwomen, Sister Mildred (Anne Jackson) and Sister Walburga (Geraldine Page), Alexandra has the entire convent bugged including the popular trees outside! In an attempt to discredit Sister Felicity, two Jesuits break in to steal her love letters from another priest. They only get her thimble. On the second break-in, the two young men are caught. But the nuns in power insist that this burglary is of no great significance.
When Sister Alexandra is elected abbess, Felicity leaves the convent vowing to blow the lid off the cover-up. Sister Alexandra and her cohorts manipulate Sister Winifred (Sandy Dennis) in some dirty tricks to keep things quiet and discredit her opponent. They keep in constant touch with the globe-hopping Sister Gertrude (Melina Mercouri) for advise. When the press closes in on Sister Alexandra, Winifred is made the scapegoat.
Part of the fun in this deft allegory is finding the connection with the Watergate case. The superb cast has a jolly time with the juicy roles. Glenda Jackson as the absolutist Nixon, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson as the ever scheming Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Melina Mercouri as John Dean. The most clumsy nun in the place, Sister Geraldine (Anne Meara) takes over in the end.
Nasty Habits is a sprightly satire exuding playfulness and sparkling wit. Greed for power is sharply lampooned, and pride receives a good send-up. And lest any religious folk get upset about the use of a religious institution to score some points for authoritarianism, let them heed the words of G.K. Chesterton, a true Christian comedian who in a poem advised us to give in to:
the great laughter of Christian men
that roars through a thousand tales
Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass
And Jack's away wit his master's lass