I’ve dedicated a handful of posts on this blog to Elvis Presley and may well have said, “this movie is special to me” each time. But this time I really mean it. Again. This time I am referring to William A. Graham‘s Change of Habit (1969), a movie that is undeservedly overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. Not only did Change of Habit allow Elvis a rare opportunity to tackle a dramatic part, it also marks an important turning point in his career and the career of his co-star, Mary Tyler Moore.
By 1969 Elvis Presley was eager to put movies aside and concentrate on music. He’d hit a home run the previous year with his ’68 Comeback special, which resulted in a best-selling album. The Elvis of my favorite era was well on his way to cementing the legend. So it was a reluctant Elvis Presley who returned to Hollywood to make Change of Habit. To that point his film career had deeply disappointed him and it was only because this movie was part of a deal the Colonel had made with NBC that he made it. The deal was for two projects, the Comeback special and Change of Habit. Little did anyone know – I imagine – that Change of Habit would be the last film Elvis would ever act in. His two subsequent films were concert documentaries, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour, both of which are fantastic.
Mary Tyler Moore was a popular actress in 1969. She’d made George Roy Hill’s acclaimed Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967 and made her mark as a pop icon with her portrayal of Laurie Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Change of Habit was initially set as a starring vehicle for Moore, but when Elvis was hired to star the plans changed. The year following the release of Change of Habit Mary Tyler Moore would begin her journey toward legend when The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered on September 19, 1970. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that she is Elvis Presley’s last leading lady. Well, OK her own work is impressive enough, but still. Moore didn’t make another movie after Habit for eleven years, but her next was Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in which she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.
“When the King of Rock Meets the Queen of Comedy, Romance Rules.” – DVD Tagline
Change of Habit tells the story of three nuns who are assigned as nurses to a free clinic in an underprivileged neighborhood. Michelle (Moore) is a psychiatric social worker with a degree in speech therapy, Irene (Barbara McNair) is an RN with a degree in public health and Barbara (Jane Elliot in her film debut) is a laboratory technician. Key to the success of their assignment is that the three nuns are required to live and work in the neighborhood in which they now serve without the comfort and safety of their habits. The hope is that people will connect to them more easily if they are seen as women, rather than nuns.
Enter Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis), the incredibly handsome and hip general practitioner who runs the clinic. The three women sans habits are surprised when they see Dr. Carpenter who has just finished a jam session with the locals in an upstairs apartment. The Doc too mistakes the women for patients before they settle the matter and each nurse is assigned a role based on her area of expertise. And then we get to the gritty in the story as we see the difficulties the locals face on a daily basis to include sub par living conditions, crime, several forms of abuse and discrimination.
While Michelle, Barbara and Irene go about the daily task of trying to improve and save the lives of the neighborhood people they keep secret the fact that they are nuns. This causes them significant strife thanks to the rude and arrogant Father Gibbons (Regis Toomey) who lives in the middle ages and has no clue as to the needs of his parishioners. Gibbons is offended by nuns wearing regular clothes and by their supposed wild lifestyle. Saints preserve us! the two snoopy old ladies in the neighborhood, Lily and Rose (Ruth McDevitt and Doro Merande) run to Father Gibbons with every stitch of gossip that falls within range of their eyes and ears. When Lily and Rose tell the Father that the three young women who moved into the apartment below are having wild parties and men over at all times of the night it only serves to churn Father Gibbons’ ire. Before long the un-Christlike Gibbons demands that the nuns return to the convent where they belong. Gibbons calls a meeting with the Mother Superior (Leora Dana) and the Bishop wherein it’s decided that the only way Michelle, Irene and Barbara can continue the project is if they do so in full habits. Then we have another problem. Unaware that Michelle is a nun Dr. Carpenter has fallen for her. Worst still – she has fallen for him.
At the end all three women have been changed by their experience. Barbara gives up the sisterhood because as the activist of the group she is too limited by the vows. It’s understandable given there’s so much to protest in the late 1960s. Irene comes to terms with her identity as a black woman, which she was trying to hide from due to her rough childhood. By the way, I’m a huge admirer of Barbara McNair, both of her acting and her singing. Hers may well be my favorite performance in Change of Habit as she delivers a somber, tough turn that remains slowly simmering in the periphery.
Finally, we have Sister Michelle who’s faced with the torturous decision of choosing between her devotion to God and her love for John Carpenter. This seems a particularly cruel and unusual position to be in, wouldn’t you say?
Besides what I think is a decent story, there are a few other reasons to watch Change of Habit. That is aside from the film’s two stars who make a nice couple although we don’t get to see even one passionate kiss between them. After all, Mary plays a nun and does so convincingly – appropriately restrained due to her vows. Also enjoyable to watch is Regis Toomey despite the fact that he plays such a stinker. Toomey was in a slew of memorable movies and TV shows since the 1930s. Another classic great in Change of Habit is Richard Carlson who makes his last film appearance as Bishop Finley. I particularly enjoy Carlson’s turn in Jack Arnold’s terrific sci-fi thriller, It Came From Outer Space (1953). It’s also great to see Ed Asner in Change of Habit albeit in a small role as Police Lt. Moretti who’s required to keep the peace in the movie. They don’t have any scenes together, but as you know Asner and Moore would soon collaborate on her legendary series. There are a few other familiar faces with smaller roles in Change of Habit that you’d enjoy as well. Take a look at the entire cast list here.
I must also give a shout out to the fabulous Darlene Love. Ms. Love doesn’t have a speaking part in Change of Habit, which is too bad, but it’s still great to see her in her element. That is – singing! Today Love is best known to movie fans as Roger Murtaugh’s (Danny Glover) wife in the Lethal Weapon movies, but of course she’s an extremely talented singer who worked with some of the all-time great rock and roll and soul talents. A wonderful gospel singer as well, Love was a regular on David Letterman’s Christmas show every year and I never missed it. Anyway, you can see Ms. Love as a back-up singer in two of the three musical numbers featured in Change of Habit. She’s on the couch as Elvis…er…Dr. Carpenter sings “Rubberneckin'” at the beginning of the movie and again in the church as he sings “Let Us Pray” at the end.
Both of those numbers are terrific and work quite well within the story although I don’t think they were written for the movie. Or at least “Rubberneckin'” wasn’t. And, may I add that Elvis was a wonderful gospel singer as well? Well, I just did. Elvis also sings the title song in Change of Habit and another one during a neighborhood football game at a carousel that I’m less enthusiastic about. In fact I don’t even remember its name and am too lazy to go look it up. In any case, Change of Habit is a far cry from all the previous musicals he’s sadly remembered for. Change of Habit is a legitimate dramatic role in comparison and Elvis is quite good in it. Plus, he looks amazingly fit and beautiful.
Change of Habit had moderate success at the box office. It seems that audiences, like Elvis himself, were looking forward to his concerts and recordings rather than to Elvis movie fare. For me this has always been the “what if” movie. What if Elvis made more movies like this one, which required he stretched his acting muscles a bit? No, this is not Hamlet, but it is a departure for him. Even the Brandos and Oliviers of the world would have needed a period of adjustment if they’d starred in virtually the same movie for a decade. Anyway, perhaps things would have ended later or differently for Elvis if he’d made a few more dramatic pictures. Just saying.
I’ll end with what his co-workers thought it was like to work with Elvis Presley…
In an interview years after the making of Change of Habit, director William Graham said Elvis was the nicest man he’d ever met.
Edward Asner, who worked with Elvis in two movies. First on Phil Karlson’s Kid Galahad in 1962 and then Change of Habit, “He was very nice to work with – a delightful young man to be around – he worked very hard.”
Mary Tyler Moore talked to “Elvis Australia” and said of working with Elvis, “It was a wonderful experience. He was charming and he had a big crush on me almost like a young kid with an older woman. He was shy.”
PS – you may have noticed I have a strong British accent throughout this post and if you have I owe you an explanation – it’s because I’ve been bingeing on Downton Abbey for a week now. Thank you for understanding.
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