Its seldom pretty when two film genres collide. Particularly these two: the "Elvis" movie and the "Social Relevance" flick. Its 1971. Running out of steam after thirty (!) other mostly mindless teenybopper musicals, The King decided to roll the dice on a Socially Conscious movie that the rebellious kids could "dig". To help bring in the middle-class, more bourgeois audience, they also enlisted TVs sexiest housewife: Mary Tyler Moore, then from the "Dick Van Dyke Show". After this disastrous attempt at film stardom, Mary wisely retreated to the tube, starring in the classic "Mary Tyler Moore Show".
We open in a convent, where we meet our first three protagonists: Sisters Michele (Moore), the leader; Barbara, the political firebrand; and Irene, the inevitable Black, streetwise nun. Their mission: Quit the useless task of trying to succor mankind through the Word of God, and instead go out to the Streets, where they can have an immediate and more concrete impact. To aid in this noble mission, a little deception is necessary. For if they allow themselves to be known as Nuns, well, The People will see them as members of the "Old Order". No, if they are to be effective, The People, as Michele informs us, must "accept us first as Women, then as Nuns". This "Undercover Nuns" bit is the films only real attempt at any sort of a plot, setting up complications both "comical" and "serious".
So The Sisters leave the convent, go forth to a salon, buy civilian clothes ( a change of habit. Get it?) and get their hair done. Reemerging out on the busy New York streets, The Sisters (actually, lets call them "The Women", now that theyre, you know, incognito and all) quickly learn some of the dangers they now face by forsaking the convent. First, theyre almost mowed down when they try to cross a busy street against the light. I guess living in a convent has left them ill prepared to deal with manifestations of the outside world like "traffic". A cop, who was respectful to them when they wore their habits, now yells at them. Guys on the street try to pick them up. Finally, garbage thrown from a window almost bonks them in the head. Thus we learn, along with Our Heroines, of the myriad dangers involved in surrendering their identities as nuns (wow!).
Actually, the falling garbage turns out to be an elegant metaphor, for we immediately cut to Elvis pad, where hes serenading a multi-racial group of youngsters with the tune "Rubberneckin". This establishes two vital pieces of info: 1) Elvis is "down" with the kids, possessing the "street credibility" that The Women are seeking, and 2) we shouldnt expect to hear any decent music in this flick. The Women, in fact, end up right outside Elvis digs, also the home of the Washington Street Free Clinic. Irene then refers to Michele as "Sister Michele". Michele herself then concludes that, if they dont want people to know that theyre nuns, they probably shouldnt address each other as "Sister". This strategic prowess shows why Michele is the leader of our little group.
Elvis lets them into the clinic, and a "humorous" round of mistaken identities occurs. Michele asks to see the clinics head doctor. Ha Ha! For the studly Elvis is the head doctor. But then Elvis himself joins the fun by assuming that the obviously non-ghetto threesome are here to try to obtain abortions (this is supposed to be funny). "All Three!", he whistles. "Just out of curiosity, was it the same guy?!" Finally, Elvis gets the picture: they want to help out at the clinic. Elvis predicts that they wont last, but eventually relents.
In spite of the fact that Change of Habit is a short movie, it now jumps from sub-plot to sub-plot so quickly, and deals with so many different characters, that its hard to cover them in sequence without writing a very lengthy piece. For those who are interested in such, check out my insanely long text-only review, or download the zipped Word document of same. For those with less patience, let me cover the bases as fast as I can.
Michele, Irene and Barbara are our heroes, trying to bring justice and health to the downtrodden. They are joined by the hip Elvis, who, we eventually learn, came to the ghetto because a guy from Washington Street died saving while saving his life in (presumably) Vietnam. On the good side is a hip cop played by future "Mary Tyler Moore Show" co-star Ed Asner, and also fairly benign are two Black Panther-ish "Brothers", complete with Afros and Dashikis, who first confront Irene about whether shes "really" black (ahh, the noble tradition of Black Americans questioning each others "authenticity"), but later help out (sort of) when Irene proves herself to them.
On the bad side are some Evil White Guys Exploiting the People for Their Own Personal Gain. These include "The Banker" a stereotypical big, fat gangster in sunglasses who drives around in a big, black Caddie, as well as the owner of the local Ajax Market, who exploits The People with high prices. This, for instance, keeps them from "buying toys for my children", as one women laments. Add in Father Gibbons, a sexist and reactionary Priest, along with two busy-body old Irish ladies who are racists and (of course) hypocrites to boot, and we are presented with a none-too-subtle array of the kind of white folks who in their various ways help keep the "underclass" oppressed and exploited.
Then there are The People themselves, who provide us with our necessary sub-plot. Pretty young Desiree has a crush on Elvis, and is jealous of Michele, as she doesnt know shes a nun. Elvis, also not knowing Micheles a nun, keeps hitting on her. Michele, in spite of the fact that she does know shes a nun, is, of course, attracted in turn to Doc E. Little girl Amanda is "autistic", and ends up getting cured in one of the most amazing and offensive motion picture scenes ever (again, see my long review or get the zipped Word file for complete details). The imaginatively named Julio Hernandez (hes Hispanic, you know) is a violence-prone stutterer, who is suffering from an all too obvious self-esteem deficit. He instantly develops a fixation on Michele, and near the end of the movie tries to rape her in one of the less charming scenes Ive seen. Father Gibbons tries to have The Sisters tossed out of his parish. Barbara decides that what The People need is a Block Party, in honor of some vaguely Marxist Catholic saint. Irene borrows money from the Banker in some obscure scheme to cause his downfall, which of course somehow works. Barbara takes on the owner of the Ajax Market. So on and so on. In the end, all is well, and the picture finishes with the fate of Michele (thinking of leaving the convent to marry Elvis) up in the air.
The film, if one actually bothers to examine it, is deeply offensive on a number of different levels. First is its basic gutlessness. The film wants to be hard-hitting (which it is, in a manner of speaking) and "relevant", but also wants to play it safe enough not the scare off the middle class audience members. This leads, on top of the constant and inane Lefty moralizing, to the films unpleasant mixing of "serious social issues" with a lot of truly awful comic "relief". So we see drug abuse, attempted rape, just avoided gang-rape, "autism", racism, and much, much more dealt with in inept fashion. These are "leavened" with comic elements such as Barbara vamping some guys to get them to move The Womens furniture in; a guy sniffing house paint to get a contact high as he helps fix up The Womens apartment; The Women being mistaken for hookers by both the busy-body neighbors and The Banker; the aforementioned "Elvis thinking The Women are pregnant" scene; lame one-liners by Doc E. and much, too much, more. And rest assured, all accompanied by awful and woefully obvious "comedy" background music.
The movies racial politics are especially egregious. The People have, of course, no control over their own destinies. Their problems are caused by Bad White People, and, ultimately, solved by Good White People. The fact that this is deeply racist in itself apparently never occurred to anybody working on the film. The only minorities who do anything positive are the "Brothers", and they dont really do anything, the script just acts like they did. Black Sister Irene does manage to bring down The Banker, but that only works if you believe she could goad him to assault a nun in full habit in front of hundreds of witnesses. Um, is that how they got John Gotti? Besides, even if that happened, another White Exploiter would immediately fill his shoes. And if he didnt, then some Black or Hispanic guy would (forgive me for being cynical). And in spite of Barbaras bragging about her "victory" over the Ajax Market, we see absolutely nothing during the course of the film to indicate that she, in fact, accomplished anything there. Oh, well, at least little Amanda is completely cured of her "autism".
Also indicative of the films poorly conceived "radical" politics is the deep distrust of authority displayed. Primarily, of course, we see that The Sisters feel they must divest themselves of the badge of the Churchs moral authority, their habits, if they are to accomplish anything useful. Julios abusive father, its implied, is the cause of all of Julios problems. Amandas mother caused her "autism" by deserting her at a young age. The grocer at the Ajax Market, as well as The Banker, represent the corrupt authority of Capitalism. Ed Asners cop is a benign figure, its true, but only because he elects not to use his authority, but allows The People to solve their own problems.
The films biggest problem is with religious authority. Father Gibbons, by refusing to reach out to The People with masses in Spanish or "folk" masses (ugh), as well as being accusatory and unforgiving, of course represents the authority of religion "wrongly" used. The movies entire philosophy of religion dictates that it is only "useful" if wielded in the name of temporal political causes, as an instrument of Social Justice. This is deeply offensive to those who believe (as I do) that the role of Religion is to put people in touch with something Eternal, that transcends the here and now. Sister Michele attacks Gibbons by saying that he can be counted on to tell it "as it was". But Christianity, or Judaism, or any major religion is driven by the fact the its teachings are not only "how it was", but how it is and how it always will be. Ultimately, the film doesnt believe that saving souls is as important as saving lives. In the end, Barbara leaves the Church in order to be free of its constraints as she strives to bring justice to the downtrodden, what she perceives to be the one truly worthwhile goal. As well, even though the film wimps out without telling us, its strongly implied that Michele will also leave the Church to wed Elvis. Only Irene, whose motive for becoming a nun was mainly to escape the poverty and crime of the ghetto, apparently will stay a nun, and I think were to believe that she will still continue to hold her newly awakened racial beliefs at least as strongly as her religious ones.
Doctor Elvis proves that laughter is the best medicine
Pregnant Woman, being examined out in the waiting room(?): "You think its twins?"
Quippin Doc E (in an accent that sound like a really bad Elvis impression):its the "I think Green Bay Packers, thats what I think!" (Much laughter ensues.)
Later, our mirthful medic points at a waiting patient with a cast on her leg: "Dont you run off. Ill be right with you!" (Much laughter ensues.)
The Laughs just keep on comin
"The Banker" thinks Barbara is a hooker, and: "Who gave you permission to set up shop in my territory?"
Barbara, unaware of his erroneous conclusion: "The Catholic Action Committee."
The Banker, shaking his head: "Well, nowadays everybodys got a piece of the action!!"
After a fight, a youth explains his actions: "I dont let nobody calls my sister a dirty, stinkin bitch! [Pause for comedic effect.] She aint dirty!"
Desiree, a teenage Hispanic cutie, begins unbuttoning her shirt in an effort to seduce the hunky Doctor E., setting the stage for this masterful comedic sequence:
Desiree: "Oh, Doc, I have such a pain in my left chest."
Elvis: "Your left chest?! Now wait a minute!"
Desiree: "Uh hum. A con-struc-tion!"
Elvis: "A what?"
Desiree: "A construction. I swear it. On my mothers grave."
Elvis: "Your mothers alive!"
Elvis explains the street rules for touch football to the neighborhood kids: "Those two trees are the goal at that end, these two trees are the goal down here. Trash cans are out of bounds. Two hands below the waist. You understand the rules?"
Helpful Barbara: "In the words of the Master, fake it for thirty-two bars! "
Tough Black Radical No. 1, to Irene: "Theres no room down here for innocent bystanders. Youre either part of the problem, or youre part of the solution."
Tough Black Radical No. 2: "Weve got a feeling youre neither!"
Elvis uses humor to keep the peace during the football
Team Caption Elvis: "Block the defensive tackle comin in this time."
Youth: "If he tries to get past me, sssst, I cut im!"
Elvis: "Cool it! Fifteen yard penalty: Illegal use of knives!"
His scorn is as cold and sharp as a surgeons
The Banker, to Elvis: "Hello. I was looking for you."
Elvis: "I cant help you, Banker. Im not a veterinarian!