William A. Graham: Change of Habit | (1969) featured image
Mary Tyle Moore and Elvis Presley in Change of Habit (1969) | Universal Pictures promo still via IMDB

Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore and Jesus Christ

Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore embody 1970s-era cultural shifts in the jumbled social message that tries to be a cutting-edge Elvis movie, Change of Habit.

Change of Habit
William A. Graham
Kino Lorber
19 October 2021

Some Things Actually Work
in Change of Habit

The majority population is Puerto Rican. This demographic triggers the film’s climactic street party in celebration of a patron saint of Puerto Rican fishermen (as opposed to fishers of men). Sister Michelle creates the party to go with her suggestion that the stuffy old-school parish priest (Regis Toomey), who “can always be counted on to tell it like it was”, should consider conducting masses with Spanish and folk-music and other uppity impertinent new-fangled notions from women who “don’t even dress like women”.

Have we gotten to Elvis? He plays the clinic’s doctor, John Carpenter (more loaded Catholic symbolism), introduced playing guitar and singing “Rubberneckin'” while surrounded by friends, musicians, and chorus, including an uncredited Darlene Love. Not counting the title song, he sings only twice more. One is the only standard musical-type number, a gentle thing on a merry-go-round, and the last song is in the church finalé, where the frantic snazzy editing returns to associate him explicitly with Christ. Oh yes.

Carpenter will explain that he’s here because his life was saved in Vietnam by a buddy, now killed in action, who came from this neighborhood. In other words, he feels some moral compulsion, as do the nuns with medical training. By my reckoning, this makes Carpenter a very early example of a Vietnam vet in a Hollywood film, and one who’s not bitter, moody, suicidal, or psychotic. Pop culture hadn’t yet stumbled onto that template, though it was fast approaching.

The ending implies but doesn’t quite say that Sister Michelle will accede to the romantic blandishments with which Carpenter’s been coming on strong since he met her, although he doesn’t learn she’s a nun until halfway through the plot. When he does, he doesn’t slow down but becomes more devious.

The “Elvis movie” was its own genre. Although Presley’s earliest efforts were reasonably serious dramas, most of the long string might fairly be called colorful, light-hearted throwaways where the world is a party of fabulous youngsters swinging their hips, strumming guitars, and driving fast cars. We should be so lucky. In the next world, perhaps.

In the world of this film, however, it’s all about dealing with a brew of problems and social indicators. One of the most interesting and controversial is the subplot of a little girl named Amanda (Lorena Kirk), whom Sister Michelle twigs as not deaf but autistic. She wishes to coach the child in certain ways, while Carpenter leaps into a radical new therapy called “rage reduction” that Sister Michelle approaches with trepidation, as well she may.

Let’s pause to goggle at hearing the word “autistic” in an Elvis film, or any film of the late ’60s. For contrast, see A Child Is Waiting (1963), scripted by Abby Mann and directed by John Cassavetes in collision (not collusion) with producer Stanley Kramer. That very intriguing film focuses on a boy who fits the autistic profile but nobody says the word in their discussion of the “mentally retarded”. The word “autistic” was hardly known to the public, just as the condition was barely grasped then and only somewhat more now. So the concept’s use in Change of Habit feels refreshing and eye-opening as well as disturbing.

A big scene finds the take-charge Carpenter basically curing Amanda with a long cathartic session of “rage reduction”. The credits tell us this was staged by Dr. Robert Zaslow, the official ’60s guru of this “attachment therapy” technique. It feels like a culturally important scene in demonstrating a now widely discredited therapy that continued into the 21st Century.

As endorsed by Zaslow, the depiction seems akin to letting somebody sweat out addiction withdrawal or the DTs. Based on the idea that autism is caused by a lack of effective parenting, the technique shown here is an aggressive, almost hostile overload of physicality amid declarations of love, which feel more likely to cause withdrawal than cure it. I wish to stress that this wrong-headedness of approach, complete with a magical breakthrough, is part of why the film feels fascinating and worthy of study today, as opposed to worthy of mockery.

Most of Change of Habit‘s other solutions are the old-fashioned progressive liberal notions that probably remain true: that established institutions like the Catholic Church, or the police force represented by gruff and weary but canny Lt. Moretti (Edward Asner, not long before The Mary Tyler Moore Show), need to empathize and integrate themselves into the culture around them rather than demanding the vice be versa, and that everyone should respect each other and work together by perceiving themselves part of a cohesive neighborhood. Unlike “rage reduction”, these ideas have worn better than our cynicism about them, for surely nothing dates more tiresomely than cynicism.

Also in the film are Richard Carlson as the progressive bishop with the hint of Mona Lisa smile, Timothy Carey as the sleazy supermarket manager, and Robert Emhardt as The Banker, a loan shark who embodies evil oppression and violence sapping the neighborhood. Curiously, he too wears dark glasses, though his shades seem to hide him from others more than intimidate others.

Change of Habit whizzes by in just over 90 minutes packed with characters and incidents. Good lord, we forgot to mention Nefti Millett as the troubled attempted rapist with a stutter and aggressive father. Maybe we prefer not to think about him, as we prefer not to think about Sister Barbara’s ill-advised flirtations with prostitution and social protest.

Suffice to say that everything in the picture doesn’t work, nor can it. It’s a jumble of social messages that try to be cutting-edge within an Elvis movie and a few songs. What’s surprising isn’t that parts of it don’t work but that any of it does. Within their restricted roles and restrictive get-ups, Moore and McNair make the strongest impressions.

Finally, let’s mention that these filmmakers were more comfortable working in television. We’ve mentioned Graham’s long career in that medium. The same is true for the writers, James Lee, S.S. Schweitzer and Eric Bercovici. Schweitzer was five minutes away from creating the very socially conscious, Emmy-winning series The Senator (1970-71). Lee won a Humanitas Prize for Roots (1977), and Bercovici wrote and produced the Emmy-winning Shogun (1980).

Their television work is committed and expansive, while this last little Elvis movie feels rather constricted in its setting and concept, despite being socially engaged. I’m glad they found a more flexible medium for their commitments, and in general, it’s true that television has always been more socially progressive, and earlier out of the gate than theatrical films.

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