Rick Richards is a helicopter pilot who wants to set up a charter flying service in Hawaii -- along the way he makes some friends, including a young Hawaiian girl and her father, romances Judy Hudson, and sings a few songs.
Michael D. Moore
Only a few songs as Elvis plays it straight as Dr John Carpenter. Mary Tyler Moore stars opposite as an incognito nun with a mission to help Dr Elvis clean up the ghetto he lives in. Can the King compete against God for Mary's heart? He can if anyone can. Written by
Paul Batey <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I watched CHANGE OF HABIT for the first time on January 8th to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth. It's quite a change of pace for the star, an attempt to mix social commentary with an Elvis musical. It doesn't quite work, largely because the script and the direction, products of the old Hollywood studio mindset, clash with the young performers and the ideas in the story that were clearly in sync with the tenor of the times. Had they gotten a younger, more innovative director, it might have worked. But that can be said about so many of Elvis's movies.
The basic premise is sound. The three nuns in the film played by Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Elliot, and Barbara McNair have clearly defined professional skills and a strong commitment to using them to help the disadvantaged. The women are unquestionably sincere and quite admirable and courageous. Their characters provide the emotional core for the story of a free clinic operating in a multi-ethnic ghetto neighborhood. From a production standpoint, the casting direction and some of the background work offer an authenticity quite rare in a studio product of the time. Despite being shot largely on the Universal Studio backlot (the New York street set), the street life portrayed has a rhythm and level of noise and aggression that wasn't often convincingly captured in studio productions. There are a large number of black and Latino performers in the cast and not a single one of them looks like they stepped out of Central Casting. A cute Puerto Rican actress, Laura Figueroa, plays a 17-year-old street girl who has the hots for Elvis. One of the black militants who confronts Barbara McNair's Sister Irene is played by Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who went on to quite a number of important roles in black-themed films and TV shows (e.g. UP TIGHT, TOP OF THE HEAP, "Roots"). There's even a street fair with a Latin band that resembles events I used to attend in the South Bronx back in the day.
The one significant false note in the casting is the inclusion of two stock old white lady characters (played by Doro Merande and Ruth McDevitt) who stick their heads out of the windows regularly to cluck their disapproval, as if they'd been held over from the Frank Capra road company. Hollywood veteran Regis Toomey (who was actually in a Capra movie, MEET JOHN DOE) is on hand as a grumpy old parish priest who antagonizes the nuns, but, to its credit, the film refuses to soften the character or make him one of those stock Irish priests with a kind word and a useful homily for every situation. Instead, he's presented as a man fearful of his parishioners and clearly out of step with the times. In another interesting casting touch, Ed Asner turns up as an enlightened beat cop who speaks Spanish to the street's residents. Cult favorite Timothy Carey (THE KILLING) plays a surly butcher who regularly cheats the customers.
There are some alarming elements on display, though. In one scene the doctor played by Elvis takes a young autistic girl of about five or six into his arms and manhandles her in a bout of "tough love," urging her to get her "anger" out. To a modern viewer it looks an awful lot like child abuse. (As another comment here points out, this was an attempt to dramatize a now-discredited treatment method called "rage reduction therapy.") At one point, Elvis tries to dissuade the nuns from working in his clinic with a jaw-dropping line that has to be heard to be disbelieved: "The last three nurses who worked here couldn't take it. Two of them were raped, one even against her will." Later, an attempted rape of one of the nuns at knifepoint by a disturbed patient is brushed off quite casually. Maybe they assumed it wasn't "against her will." Also, this has to be the only Elvis film where you hear the words, "faggot," "bitch" and "nigger." (And it was rated "G," to boot!)
While Mary Tyler Moore does an excellent job as Sister Michelle, who is torn between her love for Jesus and her love for Elvis, I can't be so generous in assessing Elvis' performance. He's quite charismatic, despite the inappropriate hairstyle and wardrobe, but he holds back in every scene. With a better script and direction, the role of an embittered Vietnam veteran who carries out his moral obligation to a dead soldier by becoming a doctor to help the poor could have been a breakout performance for the singing star. Instead, Elvis comes in, reads his lines with a minimum of involvement and refuses to express the emotions that the character must surely be feeling. What happened? Why didn't he step up to the plate and knock this one out of the park? He had it in him. Instead, this was his last acting job. All I see now is sad, wasted potential. It hurts.
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