Earnest Elvis Tempts Vow-Bound Mary Tyler Moore



Right off, we’re dealt an earnest whack on the wrist as we watch Sisters Michelle, Barbara, and Irene (Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Elliott, and Barbara McNair, respectively) get prayed out of the convent and into the big bad world habit-less on a mission to cultivate neighborhood interaction sans religious presumption. The fact that the neighborhood is in Spanish Harlem, where safety is not guaranteed, nor salvation an easy sell, raises the stakes immediately. “If we’re going to reach these people, we have to be accepted first as women, then as nuns.” And off that, we’re ushered into a weird yet 1969-sensible strip-tease-of-sorts as the women exchange their tunics, sleeves, and headwear for hose and skirts – and they’re off to convert the struggling masses gathered on a soundstage at the Universal lot. 

Meanwhile, the sequence is penetrated – there may be no other word for it – by shots of Elvis in his post-’68-comeback splendor, at what looks like a sit-in, strumming and singing like the foreshadowing siren that he is. We don’t know where we are, or why Elvis is there, but some quick plotting explains he’s the doctor (named John Carpenter, of all things) at the free clinic where our three not-obvious nuns have arranged to ply their God-given nurturing skills. It’s frankly the stuff of broad, late ‘60s farce – and the title isn’t helping things – but countering all expectations, it’s played straight, and convincingly so. From this premise sprouts the many-headed beast of a story, wherein our nuns on the down-low are tested against a rosary’s worth of the raging social questions of the day: racial unrest, poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, to name just the most obviously photogenic. But all of them are treated with urgent gravitas, as if the plot is racing against its own short running time to solve all the ills that spilled out of the torrential ‘60s.

When we’re watching Change of Habit, we’re watching two influential Hollywood career paths in media res, both of which lean into the title with unintentional irony. The first, grand as it is, and yet the lesser of the two, is the benediction of Mary Tyler Moore’s television hiatus – those four years between her two pillar-like TV shows The Dick Van Dyke Show (ended in 1966) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (begun in 1970). Like the glinting cinematic sliding door between two of the small screen’s most influential sit-coms, Moore’s Universal years (including Thoroughly Modern Millie and What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?) culminate in this film, one that both ratifies her well-established can-do spunk and also refines that persona by setting it in an environment that is counterpoint to every expectation we have of her. Due almost entirely to Moore’s deep association with comedy up to that point, one gets the (incorrect) feeling she’s slightly in over her bob haircut, especially when compared to the righteous conviction at the center of Barbara McNair’s performance as Irene, who faces down a couple of Black Panthers who demand she join their righteous cause, not realizing she’s already burned her own harrowing path out of the projects. Meanwhile, Jane Elliott’s Barbara goes through an entire arc that finds her giving up her vows altogether. A victim of plot, Moore is mostly left to just deal with Elvis’s unknowing romantic advances – he’s unaware they’re nuns until near the end.  

And he is our second career path to watch. This would be his final of thirty-one films, after the inevitable downward curve of his short but overly-stuffed movie career. Here, Elvis was a late addition to the cast – it was to be a Mary Tyler Moore vehicle – and though he exercises his usual tossed-off ease on the screen, he’s still thieving all the attention. You can’t not watch Elvis. Even as far a leap as it is to accept him as “Dr. Carpenter”, you do anyway. Credit his charm and ease with patients of all kinds, but don’t miss the subtle authority he presumes over his three new interns. He transcends the unlikelihood of actual medical training by willing a matter-of-fact, busy-handed, straight-gazing authority. Also credit director William Graham for taking Presley through a more intense prep for this role than for his usual rogue-ish roustabout characters. For an Elvis-as-actor fan, it’s tough to watch such an easily magnetic and convincing performance that is, in fact, the swan song of that facet of his career. The performance points to something more. At only 34, the promise of what could have been, teed up by this film, especially knowing his desire to be a respected actor, makes the finality here almost too much to accept. 

It’s also fascinating to eye the arc from Elvis’ first movies to this one in terms of subject matter and openness. His films span the era of the eroding Production Code, wherein even his own jaunt as a juvenile delinquent in Jailhouse Rock (1957), murder rap and all, is comparatively nun-like compared to Change of Habit’s teenage, knife-brandishing rapist (Nefti Millet). The fact that Elvis/Carpenter initially mistakes the plain-clothes nuns for three pregnant women in need of abortions – which he rejects immediately as an option, offering them instead some “vitamin pills and a diet plan” – is testament to the fact of the times: we were putting a man on the moon, but navigating an Earth beset by assassinations, unpopular wars, and violence on the streets, and even Elvis movies were feeling the weight. 

Despite the same year’s songless Charro!, the expectation for an Elvis movie is a slate of musical set pieces. Elvis sings here, but only three times (beyond the opening credits), and they each have their pointed use. The first is “Rubberneckin’”, the song described above, which interrupts the set-up of the nun story with a rhythmic reminder that Elvis is near, and he will not be ignored. The second, “Have a Happy”, is the only one of the three where the music is somehow piped in from the heavens and he’s just singing along with it. It’s the only outright charming one of the three, set on a merry-go-round with Moore and a young autistic girl they’re both caring for. The optimistic drive of the song underscores Elvis/Carpenter’s desire for a nuclear family, and recalls the lively, kid-centered, playground-set tune “Confidence” from Clambake only two years earlier. Finally, the doozy of the three, “Let Us Pray”, is sung by Elvis in the emotional climax of the film, in a full church, beneath a massive Jesus-on-the-cross, with Moore back in devoted habit. He’s laid his cards on the altar, hoping she’ll drop the habit again, and she’s in the congregation glancing from Christ to Elvis and back again – who will she choose? And it presents a chafing weirdness that a movie so upbeat about its own progressive Catholicism would also be a movie whose progressive Catholicism includes chucking vows for a rock-and-rollin’ community doctor with tight shirts. 

And it’s even weirder that we get the feeling (though we’re ultimately left to wonder) that Moore will choose Elvis. But who can blame her? The Elvis of this movie strikes the perfect balance between the leather-jacketed sex conduit of the first part of the previous year’s comeback special, and the beautifully-awkward, socially-aware, old-time-preacher-suited “If I Can Dream” Elvis from the end of that show, more a conduit for spiritual renewal and social justice than girls, girls, girls. He’s both, he’s more, and he’s perfect, and if she doesn’t choose him, she might actually be more backslidden. 

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray disc has only one extra, but it’s all anyone would need, a commentary track by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, providing their usual one-stop-shop for all things on any given filmic subject. The free-flowing, mostly scene-specific roll-out is as always authoritative and conversational in equal parts – a hundred percent man, a hundred percent divine – with details delivered not so much with encyclopedic rigor as much as issuing forth from some DNA-level cohabitation with the material. It’s never disappointing getting to know a movie by way of their combined leisurely passion. The movie is fascinating in its own right, but the commentary track gives the disc its academic heft. 

The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.