Change of Habit

Change of Habit
Director: William Graham
Screenplay: James Lee & S.S. Schweitzer and Eric Bercovici (story by John Joseph and Richard Morris)
Stars: Elvis Presley (Dr. John Carpenter), Mary Tyler Moore (Sister Michelle Gallagher), Barbara McNair (Sister Irene Hawkins), Jane Elliot (Sister Barbara Bennett), Leora Dana (Mother Joseph), Edward Asner (Lt. Moretti), Robert Emhardt (The Banker), Regis Toomey (Father Gibbons), Nefti Millet (Julio Hernandez)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1969
Country: USA
Change of Habit DVD Cover

The late 1960s was an incredibly turbulent era for Hollywood. Trapped in what appeared to be a never-ending downward spiral, many of the studios were in dire economic straits and were being bought up for the first time by large conglomerates. In many ways, Hollywood had lost its sense of identity, as the blockbuster formulas that had worked so well in the early 1960s no longer held sway with the newly segmented youth generation, and edgier, adult-themed foreign films and independent productions by no-name upstarts like Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate), Robert Altman (M*A*S*H), and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) were hot at the box office. It was an era of growing pains, as Hollywood finally shifted away from its classical origins, arriving at the dawn of what would become known as "The New Hollywood."

I offer this brief historical summary because it is virtually the only means by which one can appreciate Elvis Presley's last starring vehicle, Change of Habit. Viewed today, it is an undeniably bizarre and dreadful movie, an almost inexplicable mixture of cheesy Elvis moments and deadly serious social commentary. It is in no way a good movie--badly directed, poorly written, and, with the exception of a few moments, badly acted--but it is an interesting movie, one that captures all the turbulence and uncertainty about what Hollywood studios thought their changing audience wanted to see.

When Change of Habit was released in 1969, Elvis had already starred in more than 30 movies, most of which were silly-fun, interchangeable pop nonsense with flimsy narratives barely holding together the King's musical numbers. Musically, Elvis had been on the decline in the 1960s; but, by the end of the decade, his last-stage renaissance was beginning (which would, unfortunately, lead to the final images of the King as an overweight Las Vegas act). It's not hard to see the impetus behind Change of Habit, misguided as it is: combine the iconic Elvis Presley with rising TV star Mary Tyler Moore in a socially conscious drama about the inner city and racial relations, making sure to maintain a gritty sense of verisimilitude while not sacrificing the King's musical numbers. Maybe the studio brass thought it would be hit; viewed now, it looks like a desperate reach, a blind attempt to do anything to connect with the audience.

Elvis stars as Dr. John Proctor, a guitar-strumming M.D. who runs a free clinic in a racially mixed New York City ghetto. He is joined by three nuns who hide the fact that they are brides of Christ in order to better blend in with the neighborhood, hoping they will be able to get closer to the people without their habits getting in the way as signs of authority. The leader is Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore), who is full of good intentions and hope that their work will make the world a better place. The other two are Sister Irene (Barbara McNair), who is black and has been using the convent as a way to escape the racial problems on the street, and Sister Barbara (Jane Elliott), an aspiring social activist who, at one point, stages a sit-in at a grocery store because the prices are unfair(!).

Most of Change of Habit plays in awkward fashion because it is such an unwieldy combination of drama and comedy, a difficult feat to pull off for even the best filmmakers and obviously far over the head of director William Graham, a veteran of TV movies. There is an attempt at romance between Dr. Carpenter and Sister Michelle, but the tension is drained by Elvis' silly come-ons and Mary Tyler Moore looking more embarrassed than concerned that she is being forced to choose between a hunky inner-city doctor and her vows of celibacy.

The aforementioned grocery store sit-in is virtually the only comic setpiece that works, and that is largely due to Ed Asner as a streetwise police officer who refuses to turn Sister Barbara's protest into a spectacle (when he doesn't hit her, she screeches, "Police brutality!"). Otherwise, the moments that are meant to be funny, including a recurring pair of judgmental old maids who live next door to the three nuns-in-hiding and complain about their "wild" behavior, fall largely flat.

At the same time, the dramatic elements of the story are often overwrought, trying too hard to maintain some kind of edge that would put the movie in league with contemporary urban explorations like Midnight Cowboy (1969). One subplot involves Amanda (Lorena Kirk), an autistic girl who is helped using a "rage reduction" therapy in which Dr. Carpenter holds her while she screams and squirms, telling her over and over again that he loves her (some have noted this scene's obvious inspiration in a similar sequence in The Miracle Worker).

Another subplot involves a stuttering Hispanic teenager named Julio (Nefti Millet) who is obviously abused by his overbearing father. Near the end of the film, he attempts to rape Sister Michelle in a scene that is too intense and too drawn out to coexist with the movie's other, more light-hearted elements (it is also surprising that, given this scene and numerous references to dark social issues like heroin addiction, prostitution, and abortion, the movie was rated G). In fact, the entire attempted rape scene is largely unnecessary, especially as it seems designed to do little more than give Elvis a moment in which he can spring to the rescue and play the conventional movie hero.

Part of the reason the drama doesn't work is because so much of it is so obviously didactic, as screenwriters James Lee, S.S. Schweitzer, and Eric Bercovici constantly hit you over the head with their messages, whether that be the need for the Catholic Church to let go of its old-fashioned ways and attempt new methods of reaching the people, or the need for African-Americans to embrace their color and what it means in U.S. society, rather than hide from it. Many of the messages are meaningful, particularly in a late-1960s context, but they are deployed with the subtlety of the proverbial sledgehammer, turning genuine social concern into cliché-ridden pap.

And, as if combining comedy and social drama weren't difficult enough, because Elvis is the star, there have to be musical numbers, no matter how awkwardly inserted. The filmmakers get away with an easy one by having the title track simply play out over the opening credits (which also includes a badly edited sequence showing the three nuns changing out of their habits into regular street clothes that is unnecessarily erotic). We are introduced to Dr. Carpenter as he sings "Rubberneckin'" with a group of kids in his apartment, but the most painfully silly musical moment is when, after being unable to get Amanda to smile on a merry-go-round, Elvis bursts into an upbeat, soft-focus number called "Have a Happy."

Change of Habit is the kind of movie that you watch with your jaw firmly settled on the floor, wondering, "What were they thinking?" Viewed more than 30 years later, it seems that the answer to that question is "They weren't thinking." However, given the institutional and historical context in which it was made, where Hollywood studios were losing millions and millions of dollars every year and had become largely disconnected from their audience, its seemingly inexplicable combination of pop-music silliness and didactic social commentary almost--just almost--makes sense.

Change of Habit DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Subtitles English, Spanish, French
DistributorUniversal Home Video
Release DateJuly 30, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
For a movie that is more than three decades old, Change of Habit looks quite good in this new anamorphic transfer. The colors, while certainly dated, have remained strong, and the transfer is pleasantly sharp throughout and largely free of any artifacts.

English Dolby 2.0 Monaural
The original two-channel monaural mix is clean, but understandably limited

Original theatrical trailer
Presented in full-frame and monaural sound.

Cast and filmmakers
Includes biographies and filmographies of all the major actors and filmmakers.

Production notes
The production notes are worth reading as they do a nice job of explaining some of the institutional context in which Change of Habit was made, which is in stark contrast to the ridiculously misleading summary on the back of the DVD cover (excerpt: "Featuring Elvis at this peak of his phenomenal popularity, it's a hilarious romantic comedy highlighted by the King's unforgettable performances of classic rock hits").

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (1.5)

James Kendrick

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