As hard as it is to believe now, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, was so big, er, popular at one time that, in a fourteen year span (1955-1969), Elvis starred in thirty-one largely forgettable films. Starting with a few decent flicks like Jailhouse Rock and Kid Creole, Elvis flicks soon morphed into a huge mass of indistinguishable titles like Girls! Girls! Girls!, Clambake and Kissin’ Cousins. And as the movies got more generic, so did the music they featured. You would think that with all the top ten songs Presley had, every film would contain at least a couple of recognizable tunes. It’s not so. For instance, in Spinout (1966), Elvis crooned the following: “Adam and Evil,” “Stop, Look, Listen,” “All That I Am,” “Am I Ready,” “Smorgasbord,” “Never Say Yes,” “Beach Shack,” “I’ll Be Back,” and, of course, “Spinout.” Yep, the hits just keep on coming.
At the end of his cinematic rope, the King apparently decided he didn’t want his last flick to be another generic bubble-gum number. Instead, he’d go out in a blaze of glory in a with-it, relevant movie that the hip counter-culture kids could “dig.” And to ensure that it’d also attract an older audience, TV’s favorite sexy housewife, Mary Tyler Moore, would play the female lead (This was before her self-named sitcom had aired. Moore was then best know as Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show).
We open in a convent, where the Mother Superior leads the Sisters in prayer for the three nuns who are venturing out into the world to succor mankind. Of course, being the late sixties, just helping people guide their lives by God’s Word wasn’t enough, was too, well, abstract. They had to go out and do something concrete to help The People! (Right on!!). We meet the leader, Sister Michele (Moore), as well as the two nuns she’s picked to join her in her righteous cause: political firebrand Sister Barbara and the inevitable streetwise Black nun, Sister Irene.
After zooming onto a crucifix, we cut to the noisy precincts of New York city. As we follow the Sisters’ progress down these mean streets, the Man from Memphis starts to belt out one of his four songs in the flick, the title theme “Change of Habit.” The Sisters check into a clothing boutique. They shed their frumpy duds, pull on stockings (considering that these are nuns, the movie spends a lot of time checking them out), and get their hair done. When they reemerge onto the street, they are almost mowed down by cars as they try to cross against the streetlights. Apparently, coming from the convent, they are all unacquainted with the idea of “traffic.” Furthermore, a cop who was polite to them when they wore their habits now fails to recognize them, and chews them out. This is the film’s subtle way of indicating that our protagonists can no longer rely on their identity as nuns for protection (wow!).
We next cut to Elvis’ digs, where he’s jamming out the classic “Rubbernecking” with a multi-racial collection of hip youngsters, establishing his “street” credentials.
Back to the approaching nuns, walking through an inner city area. The Sisters engage in some obvious expository dialog. We learn Irene (you know, the Black one) “said a thousand Hail Mary’s to get out of a neighborhood like this.” Then Moore lectures them in excruciating “Seventies” talk, providing the lame rationale for the film’s silly “Undercover Nuns” plot line. It seems that if they wear their habits, “The People” will see them as authority figures, as members of “the old order.” They need the street credibility that Elvis already has, and can’t get it if they’re known to be nuns. The People must “accept us first as Women, then as Nuns.” However, abandoning the protection of their habits causes other problems. First, two guys on the street try to pick them up. Then they are almost hit on the heads by falling trash. This is obviously a metaphor, for as the garbage hits the ground we immediately cut back to Elvis, still crooning “Rubbernecking.”
The Sisters finally end up outside Elvis’ pad, from which the strains (and I do mean “strains”) of “Rubbernecking” are assaulting passersby. Apparently, this film was produced in the days before Noise Pollution statutes. Michele quips that it’s “music to exorcise evil spirits by” (har har). Barbara calls her “Sister Michele,” causing Moore to stop and ponder. She concludes that if they don’t want people to know that they’re nuns, perhaps they shouldn’t call each other “Sister.” This strategic prowess is why Michele is the leader.
Next come some comic misconceptions that would remind one of the plays of the 18th Century farceur Moliere, had Moliere happened to be an untalented idiot. First, the hip, studly Elvis lets the Sisters (well, now that they’re undercover, let’s refer to them as “The Women”) into the Washington Street Free Clinic, which turns out to be their objective. The Women tell Elvis they want to see the clinic’s doctor. Ha, Ha! For hip, studly Elvis IS the doctor! He introduces himself as Dr. “John Carpenter” (since Elvis is really just playing himself, I’ll refer to him as Elvis for the purpose of my little essay). The name Carpenter, of course, carries associations of another “carpenter,” also a “King” who helped heal the poor. “John Carpenter” also happens to be the name of the director of Halloween (1977) and The Thing (1983), alerting the savvy audience member that Elvis will be the source of unspeakable horrors to come.
But one farcical misidentification deserves another. For Elvis, spotting the uptown vibes of his visitors, assumes that they’re at the clinic to get one of them (snort, giggle) an abortion (boy, no subject is surer to provide guffaws than abortion!). Luckily for any viewer who’s eaten lately, Presley informs them he won’t do anything for them that he’d wouldn’t do for his regular, poor clients, and instead offers nutritional advice. The hilarity mounts: Elvis asks the one “needing help” to follow him into his office. All three do so. “All Three!,” Elvis whistles. “Just out of curiosity, was it the same guy?!”
Doc E. eventually comes to understand that they want to volunteer at the clinic. He warns them that two previous nurses were raped, and predicts that they’ll be too soft to stick it out. Finally, however, he gives in, and in a comic “highlight,” asks for their full names. Of course, as nuns they’ve given up their secular names, but watching them stammer as they try to reacquaint themselves with the concept of last names is just painful. I mean, they all appear to be in their twenties. Could they really have been in a convent so long that they’ve entirely forgotten things like last names and not to walk against traffic?
The Women head over to their new apartment, swarmed by the local Hispanic teenage girls, who all look like refugees from West Side Story. They all have crushes (of course) on Doc Elvis and are checking out the “competition” (hey, another zany result of the “undercover nuns” plot line!). The Women, attired in ridiculously modest dresses, are immediately taken for hookers (!) by their uptight old Irish busybody neighbors. Just to make sure we understand that these are the kind of people who are “the problem,” one of them shouts out that Irene “is as black as the Ace of Spades!” And yet, if these old biddies only knew that they were nuns, they would have treated Our Heroines with respect (hey, another zany result…oh, never mind). Wow, it really makes you think, doesn’t it?
The Women check out their apartment, and groan as they see what a dump it is. We groan as we realize that we’re in for one of those “fixing-up-the-apartment” montages. Amazingly, we are spared this seemingly obligatory sequence, although we do have to put up with Michele grabbing a broom and quipping, “Alright, let’s get this place next to Godliness!”
After presumably putting their rooms in order, the Women go to check in with Father Gibbons at the local church. Michele is dismayed to find the doors of the church are locked, as the film provides us with another example of how the Old Establishment “Order” is out of touch with The People (wow!).
Of course, Father Gibbons is an old fuddy-duddy, who locks the church at night due to somebody having stolen some church property. Unsurprisingly, he can’t “relate” to The Women’s with-it mission. Gibbons is portrayed as an absolute jerk, in inverse ratio to our almost comically perfect nuns, who are not only socially conscious, but wise, respectful, and presumably thrifty, clean and kind to small animals. Gibbons, threatened by the “new order,” stalks off in distaste as our pious nuns pray (wow!).
Spiritually refreshed, Michele and Irene check in at the clinic, where Doctor E. is already hard at work. Elvis is still waiting for them for to give up, in spite of Irene reassuring him that she “knows where it’s at!” (Right on!). He helpfully suggests they all get married and have a gaggle of kids (wow, I bet if he knew they were nuns he wouldn’t have…yada, yada, yada). This comment serves as both a subtle proposition to Michele as well as helpful evidence to show that Elvis is not only caring healer but also a big, sexist boob. At least by our modern standards. Hey, isn’t it weird that the cool people in this film, the ones who are contrasted to the obnoxious people the film thinks are “the problem,” would now themselves be judged reactionary? Well, live by Political Correctness, die by Political Correctness.
Since Michele is a speech therapist (and probably a brain surgeon and airline pilot), Elvis introduces her to a Hispanic lad imaginatively named Julio Hernandez. Julio is a screwed-up teen with a stutter, which I presume we’re to attribute it to his father, a man who abuses his son verbally and (somewhat) physically. Of course, the father is another “bad” authority figure for us to contrast with Michele and Elvis. To make sure we know Julio has problems, we watch as he grabs a sharp pair of scissors, which he says makes him feel good and helps him speak better. See, he’s just suffering from a self-esteem deficit! Michele instantly makes a connection, and gets him to give up the scissors. This is in pointed contrast to the inability of Julio’s mean parental unit to connect with him. Still, is Michele in time to help him deal with his rage?
The next patient is rather obviously high. I mean really, really obviously. Let’s just say this guy won’t be getting any supporting actor nominations. The innocent Michele mentions how he seems to deal well with the pain of his stitches. The streetwise Elvis replies that “you don’t feel much on ‘the Stuff’ ,” and to just to make sure we unhip audience members get it, points to the kid’s track marks and says, “H..”
Barbara, back at the apartment, is in a jam. The Women’s furniture has arrived, but was dumped out on the sidewalk in a huge heap. How is she to get the furniture inside? To excruciating “comedy” music, she begins to carry the furniture inside piece by piece. Then, just to prove that, no matter how bad it is, it can always get worse, the music segues into that awful “la-la-la-la” kind of stuff that plays over Danish ’70s sex flicks late-night on Cinemax. This is because Barbara has noticed that the loafing men across the street jump to help a “foxy lady” when she drops her purse. To the surprise of no one, Barbara has a zany light bulb moment. In a comic “highlight,” Barbara prances around, using her body to get the horny, mindless males to help her out, as the busybody neighbors look on. Hey, I think those old biddies are actually hypocrites. I mean, they act offended and all, but really they’re eating it up. Wow, what a subtle piece of characterization!
Meanwhile, a gigantic black Caddie drives up, introducing the most obvious villain of our piece, The Banker. He’s the neighborhood mobster, loan shark and whatnot. He’s also (shock) a big, fat White Guy who’s exploiting The People for his own Evil Personal Gain. With his jet black sunglasses and balding head, he somewhat resembles an older and fatter Roy Orbison. The guy is so blatantly sinister and corrupt that it wouldn’t be surprising to find out he was George Lucas’ inspiration for Jabba the Hut. I’m just surprised he doesn’t end up tying one of our nuns to a railroad track.
Anyway, when we look back to Barbara (snort, giggle) she’s relaxing in a chair on the curb as the brainless men she vamped move a piano (?) down into their basement apartment. This is hilarious! Well, OK, it isn’t. But it’s supposed to be. Or why would the scene be accompanied by goofy “comedy” music? But then the plot thickens. For this tableau is being observed by The Banker, who also makes the immediate assumption that Barbara is a, uh, working girl. Of course, if he knew she was really a nun…Oh, what a wicked web we weave! Anyway, he goes to check out the situation and arrives in time to stop Barbara from apparently being gang-raped by her six helpers (ho ho ho!). After a silly conversation with Barbara (see IMMORTAL DIALOG) he splits, but leaves the audience with the feeling that we haven’t seen the last of him (sigh).
Back to the clinic. As we meet the next patient the film really hits its stride. A little girl, Amanda, is brought in because it’s suspected she’s deaf. After Elvis somehow divines she can hear, Michele suddenly turns into Sherlock Holmes. She asks Amanda’s guardian if the girl is hers. After learning that she isn’t (she’s her niece, taken in after being abandoned by her mother), Michele deduces that Amanda is not deaf, but autistic (and yes, they do the “no, au-tistic, not ar-tistic” routine). Michele explains that autism is caused when young children experience rejection (?!).
Later at the clinic, after seeing more patients, Doc Elvis gets a rather mysterious phone call from Irene, who’s making a series of rounds throughout the neighborhood. Here’s the entire phone call:
Elvis picks up phone: “Hello?”
Irene: “Doctor, I think you better get over here right away.”
Elvis listens and nods. “Yeah, OK.” Hangs up.
By the next shot, Elvis and Michele have joined Irene at the patient’s apartment. My only question: How the hell did he know where she was calling from?
Having introduced all these various plot devices (and with more to come) the movie starts moving faster. After saving the aforementioned patient, Elvis sees Michele and Irene praying. Walking back to the clinic, the King strolls past Amanda’s stoop, and she imitates his whistling, “proving” that she’s autistic, not deaf.
Elvis informs Michele of this while also trying to get her out on a date, because he doesn’t know…oh, you get it. Michele wants to start Amanda on a program of “patience and love,” while Elvis advocates “Rage Reduction,” a more radical but quicker method. Michele prefers her slower but safer procedure, prompting Elvis to reply “I hope we’ve got that much time,” as if Amanda will turn into a pumpkin if she isn’t cured by Tuesday. Then Julio stick his head into the office and stammers “You forgot me.” Michele replies that of course she didn’t, but I think Julio was talking to the audience. In which case he was right. Who can keep track of all this stuff (or would want to?).
Anyway, on to plot #847. Barbara is at the local grocery, the Ajax Market, and doesn’t like the prices. She calls the owner a “walking social injustice,” and the women in front of her moans about how the high prices keep her from saving money to buy her kids toys (!). Of course, the owner is a big, rude White Guy who’s exploiting The People for his own Evil Personal Gain. Hey! Just like the mobster guy! He even tries to cheat the woman out of her change, but the ever alert Barbara catches him out. The woman profusely thanks her. Thank goodness for the good white people who keep the bad white people from stealing from the poor minority people, who are too oppressed to ask for change. Maybe now that woman can buy her kids some toys.
Later, back at the apartment, Michele and Irene are faced with Barbara’s “noodle ring” for supper again. Barbara suggests that if Michele doesn’t like noodle ring, she should have accepted Doc Elvis’ dinner invitation. This set off a “humorous” discussion (see IMMORTAL DIALOG).
But the ol’ Doc hasn’t given up yet, as he and some helpers come to the rescue with a large array of groceries (accompanied by the ever present “comedy” music as well as more, uh, comic relief from the nosy neighbors). And since the Women can’t get the landlord (who’s probably a rich White Guy who exploits The People…well, you know) to paint the apartment, Elvis and company roll up their sleeves and get to work. Oh, no! It’s that “Fixing-up-the-apartment-musical-montage” we didn’t get before. It’s reassuring to know that the filmmakers didn’t manage to miss this clichÃ©, because it would have spoiled their otherwise perfect record. And just because you should never go too long without comic relief, we’re treated to the sight of one kid mischievously sniffing the paint he’s mixing for a contact high. Har har.
Of course, after the short montage, the apartment looks about three thousand percent better, and after dinner Elvis and The Women enjoy a hard-hitting political discussion (See IMMORTAL DIALOG yet again). It turns out Barbara has still got a bee in her bonnet regarding the Ajax Market, and we groan as it’s confirmed that there’s yet another plot thread to be resolved. Elvis then sits mystified as the Women indulge in an after-dinner prayer (because, you know, Elvis comes from the Deep South, where people never pray at meals). Boy, though, if he ever finds out they’re really nuns, well, the clues have been there all along, haven’t they?
Barbara announces her plans to hold a block party in honor of some patron saint or another, with Irene against the idea. Oddly, she states they’re “here to do a job, not to get involved,” which seems to contradict everything we’ve seen up to now. And of course, if you don’t “get involved,” well, you might as well be some White Guy exploiting The People for his own Evil Personal Gain. Barbara retorts that “Happy people are closer to God,” which, not to get into a big theological debate or anything, seems to run counter to much of the Bible. Actually, don’t people generally turn to God for solace, and not when they’re already doing well? Elvis is also against the Block Party idea, fearing it’ll result in a street fight. He suggests that if they want to get to know the kids, they should come to park with him for his weekend touch football games.
Elvis then shows Michele how to strum a guitar, and accompanies her on the piano. The old biddy neighbors then walk by, complaining excitedly about how dirty the movie they just saw was. Hearing the (I must admit) realistically poor music coming from the apartment, they decide The Woman must be having an orgy (?), and breathlessly call Father Gibbons to relay their suspicions. Great, another “plot” devise to be resolved before we can get out of here.
Inside, Elvis is putting moves on Michele again, and she’s hard pressed to resist his Kingly charms. She manages to rebuff him off by telling him “there’s Someone else.” Elvis takes his leave like a gentleman, but as he exits we see Julio lurking around Michele’s apartment. Hey, let’s recap all the plot threads we have left to wrap up: 1) Elvis’ attraction to Michele, who he doesn’t know is a nun. 2) Michele’s attraction to Elvis, although she is a nun. 3) Stuttering Julio. 4) Autistic Amanda. 5) The block party. 6) The Gangster. 7) The Mean Grocery Guy. 8) Flack from the regressive Father Gibbons…just shoot me now.
Next comes the scene that really puts this movies over the top. Amanda comes in for her session, but Michele’s “love and patience” technique doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, in spite of the fact that they’ve presumably been trying it for, like, three days now. Insisting that Amanda is hiding behind a “wall of anger,” the Doc decides to go ahead with his radical “Rage Reduction” therapy.
And what, exactly, is “Rage Reduction?” Well, in the movie The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft played Annie Sullivan, the women who managed to educate the blind deaf-mute Helen Keller. In the film’s most famous scene, Annie watches Helen’s family let Helen feel her way around the dinner table, grabbing food off various plates and eating it with her hands. Annie realizes that if Helen in to be taught, structure must first be imposed on her. Annie orders the family to lock her and Helen alone in the dining room, and not to open the doors until Annie gives the word. Next follows a truly harrowing sequence. Helen’s family has long ago given up trying to discipline her, due to her condition, and Helen is used to acting out without consequence. Annie literally forces order on the violent and unwilling Helen. When Helen slaps Annie, Annie slaps her back. Annie forces Helen to sit in a chair if she’s to going to eat, and to use utensils, a protracted and tiring struggle, appalling to watch. The scene proceeds in pretty horrible fashion as Annie and Helen engage in a very physical battle of wills until Helen’s exhausted and willing to have rules proscribed on her. As cruel as the scene is, for Helen’s condition is hardly her fault, we know, like Annie, that Helen must be controlled before she can improve her life.
Well, autistic Amanda is about to go through this movie’s version (read: rip-off) of the above. Of course, while The Miracle Worker is adult enough to make the scene horrible for both Annie and Helen, this film is too wimpy for that. Instead, Elvis just hugs the struggling Amanda, repeating, “I love you, Amanda, I love you,” over and over.
In The Miracle Worker, we watch the struggle at length, the events almost as dreadful and exhausting for us as for Annie and Helen. Here, they just cut to the waiting room regularly to indicate the passage of time (amazingly, they don’t use the “spinning clock hands” technique for this). Admittedly, the filmmakers are successful in fostering the illusion that an extremely long time is passing, but then they accomplish that throughout the entire movie. Worried looks by the other characters are also used to imply how horrible the process is. Furthermore, in the middle of the scene, we get a dose of, yes, “comedy relief.” A guy on crutches comes into the clinic, hears Amanda’s screams, and takes off. Yuk, yuk. Of course, this also undermines the idea that an awful ordeal is taking place, something The Miracle Worker gets across in spades.
Finally, after the powerful struggle in The Miracle Worker, we end up only at the very beginning of Helen’s healing process, a task that will last a lifetime. Here, when we finish, Amanda appears pretty much entirely cured. She speaks, expresses herself (“I’m hungry”) and starts hugging everybody. Oh, and there’s the fact that Amanda is supposed to be, well, you know, autistic, and Helen Keller wasn’t. Elvis then has Amanda hit his hand as hard as she can for a while. Everybody looks on smiling at this demonstration of Amanda learning to express her anger. Thank goodness, Amanda will now know to smack others instead of repressing her feelings. Actually, after comparing these two scenes I have to admit that, if anything, the Change of Habit version is more appalling to watch than The Miracle Worker version.
Next, we cut to the promised (perhaps threatened would be a better word) football game in the park. The Doc asks where Irene is, and is informed that she’s making house calls. Apparently, the doctor and head of the clinic doesn’t know (or care) when his nurses are seeing patients.
Anyway, Irene is at that moment treating a Hispanic man who has been savagely beaten. Oddly, even though his face is horribly bruised, it isn’t all that swollen. It turns out (in case anybody hasn’t figured it out yet) that he was beaten by The Banker’s men for being late on a loan. On the way out, Irene is accosted by two “Brothers” (one, of course, in a Dashiki and sunglasses) who want to know “where she stands.” The politically with-at Brothers correct Irene when she’s identifies herself as a “Negro”; now they’re “Black.” (Note for the re-make: Now have Irene identify herself as “Black,” and the Brothers correct that to “African-American”.) Apparently they’re upset that a “sister” is healing people of other races, or something, and wonder if she’s really Black or just “dipped in maple syrup.” Ah, the noble tradition of Black Americans questioning each other’s “authenticity.” It brings a tear to the eye. The Brothers warn Irene to stop hanging out with White People (“offay chicks”) or else get out of Dodge.
Back at the park, we watch a couple of plot devices at a steady boil: Desiree jealously watches Doc Elvis (interacting with Michele); Julio fixating on Michele herself. Elvis and Michele go off for an ice cream cone, with the now apparently fully functional Amanda tagging along. Amanda’s adopted mother is nowhere in sight. Evidently she doesn’t plan to take much advantage of Amanda’s newly improved medical state.
Michele asks to hear to tale of how a Mississippi boy like Doc E. ended up in the Washington Street clinic, here in the big city. Elvis asks “You don’t want to hear about it, do you?,” but unfortunately not to the audience (“NO!!”). Long story short, a guy from Washington Street saved Elvis’ life in the army (presumably in Vietnam). Elvis seeks to repay his now deceased savior by coming back to the man’s home street and working the clinic. Still, as Elvis notes, he “learned more here than I would in the suburbs, giving out diet pills and vitamin shots”. Because, you know, middle class white people never get sick or anything.
After buying Amanda ice cream, they all go onto the park’s merry-go-round. Amanda gets all grumpy for no reason (except the script says so). After failing to cheer her up, Elvis says “This calls for a very special kind of magic,” and, to our horror, starts to sing. Evidently, the “special kind” of magic is Black Magic.
I guess he’s trying to teach Amanda to count your blessings, for things can always get worse. Certainly, the warning contained in “Santa Claus is coming to Town,” of “you better not pout, I’m telling you why,” never struck home so hard. I’ll tell you why, it might set Elvis to singing. The featured syrupy tune, “Sunshine Place,” to be kind, sucks. In addition, we have to endure a saccharine montage of “happy” park goers frolicking.
Also, as it’s the only time someone just breaks into song like in a regulation musical, it’s particularly jarring. For a movie that’s trying to establish a gritty sense of The Street, it’s a pretty major mistake. I guess they figured they better throw in one scene for those members of the audience who wandered in expecting a normal Elvis movie. On the other hand, no film has been more successful at recreating the sense of nausea you can get from riding a merry-go-round. We watch Elvis grab the brass ring while we grab an air-sickness bag.
Seeing Julio lurking nearby, they call for him to join them, but he just runs off, as it’s not time to resolve his plot thread yet. Elvis warns Michele to be careful, and Michele replies “Maybe you’re wrong about Julio. You were about Amanda.,” which is odd because, in fact, he wasn’t at all wrong about Amanda.
Walking home that night, Irene sees yet another guy getting beat up by the Banker’s men. Meanwhile, as they arrive home, Michele informs Barbara that she intends to go consult with Father Gibbons, due to her inappropriately tender feelings for the hunky Elvis. Barbara, aware of how, well, stodgy and uptight Father Gibbons is, warns that he’ll “burn you at the stake.” When Michele agrees that Gibbons isn’t exactly “an apostle of the Ecumenical movement,” Barbara quips “No, more the Inquisition.” And who can argue with her? Gibbons is the kind of priest who thinks it’s his job to tell everybody what’s right and what’s wrong! Oh, wait, that is a priest’s job, isn’t it. Still, Barbara is no doubt correct in comparing a strict priest who yells with an organized movement that used torture to force people to act correctly. Certainly the filmmakers agree with her.
Hey, what a coincidence! Just then, Father Gibbons exits the nosy neighbor’s apartment. Having listened to their hysterical accusations, Gibbons warns that he intends to have Our Heroines kicked out of his parish (bum bum bum!).
In the morning, Elvis finds The Banker leaving the clinic. He warns Elvis to stop hassling one of his clients, the price gouging grocery owner. I guess he pays The Banker to keep people from complaining about high cereal prices. It turns out that The Banker was at the clinic to see Irene. After seeing that man being beaten up, she’s decided that she must, indeed, get involved. So she’s borrowed money from The Banker, and doesn’t intend to repay it. Exactly what this is supposed to accomplish is left to our imaginations.
Next we travel to the office of the local Bishop. Father Gibbons is attempting to have the Sisters kicked out of his perish, and generally just acting like a jerk in as broad a fashion as possible. The mod nuns respond that maybe he could try “bringing more people back into the church” with masses in Spanish, or a (ugh!) “folk mass”. Actually, in the twenty-five plus years since this movie came out, it’s been established that it’s the local churches that have done the least to “update” themselves that have best maintained their parishioner base. Apparently, the concept that people attend church to come into contact with something Eternal, something that transcends the here and now, that doesn’t change to stay “relevant,” is beyond the way-hip Sister Michele, as she goes babbling on about “new methods, innovations,” yakada, yakada, yakada.
The Bishop (who reminds me of Phil Hartman) allows the Sisters to proceed with their work, and to go ahead with the Festival, but orders them to resume their habits. Michele worries that there’s so much they haven’t accomplished “as women,” but is overruled. Our Heroines are devastated, as wearing their habits will somehow compromise their grand scheme to save the world from hatred, bigotry and being overcharged for peanut butter. Still, to lighten the mood, we see the Bishop’s secretary flash Barbara the peace symbol as they leave the office.
The Sisters walk down Washington Street in their habits, and we view the various characters’ reactions. The busybody neighbors, of course, fall all other themselves absolving The Sisters of any purported wrongdoing (“Whatever they’ve done they must have had good cause!”). This is meant to show them as hypocrites, but why would it? Who doesn’t look at someone in a nun’s habit and think of them differently? Or a cop’s uniform, a soldier’s, etc. Isn’t that, in fact, pretty much the entire point of a uniform? Bystanders whisper and point, and Desiree is bewildered, then joyous and relieved that her “rival” is, uh, unqualified for the competition. Julio just stares from a fire escape, but “danger” music plays, so I guess he’s going to do something nasty (duh).
Sister Barbara, despite orders, goes to the evil grocer’s establishment. There, in a gesture so ironic, yet so apt, she buys a mop handle from him that she proceeds to make into a sign protesting that his store is “unfair to consumers” (wow!). Then she sits on the floor and obstructs traffic.
We cut back to the clinic where, “in the scene we’ve all been waiting for” (uh, yeah), Michele plans to reveal to Doc E. that she’s a nun. Of course, Elvis is facing the other way as she enters in her habit, and carries on a longish bit of conversation with her before turning and seeing the habit (“Ya gotta be kiddin’!”).
Elvis, who’s been hitting on her for the whole film, is understandably ticked. He attacks her for failing to inform him of her status, and she rather lamely responds, “It was an experiment. We weren’t to tell anyone.” However, neither point out that there seems to be little logic in keeping this info from the head of the clinic. How would that have hurt their goal to connect with “the people” as “women?” Michele, crying now because she, of course, has also fallen for Elvis, has enough gall to say that her deception was, in fact, “unfair to both of us.” This might be true on some level, but seems a little impertinent as a defense. After all, she was in on it, he wasn’t. She refers to her vow of chastity, and Elvis rather cuttingly asks about her vow of honesty. Then the phone rings.
Back to the market, where Elvis has arrived with cop Ed Asner (!) to respond to the owner’s complaint regarding Sister Barbara. I’m sure many wonder if this movie connection was what got Asner the role of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My question is how he got the part in spite of his appearance here. The idea that Moore would risk working again with anybody connected with this fiasco boggles the mind.
Sister Barbara, of course, expects the worst at the hands of this Tool of the Fascist State. However, in the film’s only real success at being unpredictable, Asner’s cop turns out to be a happening, with-it dude. Barbara defies the cop to do his worst, as Asner, eating a filched banana, recites lines from what is apparently “The Hip Cop’s Handbook.” As Barbara calls him a “dirty establishment fink,” Asner tells Elvis that “The Law Officer should always endeavor to maintain his own good humor, even in the face of pejorative comments and obscenities.” This scene is actually moderately funny, and the savvy audience member, starved of entertainment, will feed while he can: there’s a lot of desert between here and the next bit of amusement. The cop leaves without arresting anyone, and Elvis drags Barbara back to the clinic. Um, did any of this resolve the “price-gouging” plot line?
Now, however, another plot thread kicks into high gear. The troubled Julio, apparently responding to the fact that his fixation Michele is a nun, is returning the stolen church property. C’mon, you remember! The reason Father Gibbons locked the church? Back in the beginning of the movie? Oh, never mind. Of course, if you can sneak in to return property you can probably sneak in to steal it too, so the “locked church” policy seems to be somewhat flawed.
This is a cute piece of propaganda. By revealing the thief to be Julio, who we know to be “troubled,” the screenwriter deflects any accusations that anyone living in the ghetto might actually be a criminal or anything. Similarly, when Irene was confronted by the radical “Brothers” earlier in the film, they informed her that they weren’t interested in the drugs she was carrying on her rounds (actually, don’t you have to be a doctor to prescribe drugs? Anyway.) Yes, the only real criminals in lower class areas are the White Guys, like The Banker and the grocer, who exploit those in need (wow!).
Unfortunately, Father Gibbons enters as Julio is returning the plaster whatever it is he stole. Startled, Julio drops it and it breaks. The mean Father Gibbons calls him a dirty thief and chases him out of the church. Thus, Julio’s later actions are laid at the feet of Father Gibbons, who’s entrance “caused” the destruction of the artifact, and whose judgmental attitude chased Julio, and his obvious attempt to receive redemption, from his church.
That night the street Festival is in full swing. We see the various elements of the film’s conclusion (yes, there is such a thing) assembled before us. There’s a contingent of cops around in case of trouble. Reassuringly, they’re led by Super Cop Asner, so we don’t have to worry about a “police riot.” We see the radical Black “Brothers” checking out the scene. Our nuns are running a food table. Elvis is decked out in basic black (is there some point to him being dressed like a priest? And if so, what is it?). The busybody neighbors check out the gyrating bodies and frumpily pull down their window shade (har har). Desiree is dancing in Michele’s now unneeded civilian dress. And hey, there’s Amanda, enjoying the music! And there’s the Mother Superior, checking out her charges’ handiwork.
Say, who can be supplying the free liquor? (The nuns are shocked that anyone would bring liquor to their street party!)? Why, big surprise, it’s The Banker! What, exactly, he would gain by getting the crown drunk, or even causing a riot, is sorta vague. I guess it’s enough that it’s bad, and he’s a bad guy.
But that’s not all. The Banker strolls over in the middle of the partying crowd to threaten Irene, who’s in full habit and in standing front of about a zillion witnesses, about her loan. Irene informs him that his money was a donation to the Festival. Considering he’s also provided the booze, perhaps The Banker should be acknowledged as the Festival’s main sponsor. Irene then informs the crowd that all debts to The Banker are hereby cancelled. After further provoking him, Irene gets the none-too-bright Banker to smack her one. Elvis jumps in and decks The Banker and his goons, and the Brothers, having seen Irene stand up to The Man, wade into the crowd to help prevent a riot(?). The cops rush in, and Asner, after checking with the Brothers to make sure they have things well in hand, arrests The Banker and then pulls the cops back out again.
Irene thanks the Brothers for their help, and is informed that “we take care of our own.” If someone can explain to me why The Brothers accepted Irene for standing up to The Banker, but not when she was tending to the medical needs of the neighborhood, please do so. Maybe it’s a Black Thing.
However, The Sister’s victory is short lived, for the Mother Superior, somewhat surprised at seeing her nuns confronting gangsters, orders them to return to the convent the next day. Later, a pensive Michele stands in the barely littered and mostly deserted street (apparently everybody said, oops, ten o’clock, time to go home). But wait, lurking nearby is…Julio! Say, could we get this plot line wrapped up already?! Desiree also shows up for a quick, perfunctory bonding moment. After that, the dejected Michele walks back to the apartment she must now leave.
Wow, give me a moment, here. My eyes are watering so hard I can barely type. There, that’s better.
At the apartment, Barbara, who has found politics more important than religion, has decided to leave the church and become an activist. Strangely, one of the reasons she gives Michele was their “victory” at the evil Ajax Market, although just what they accomplished was never explained.
Next, in a scene of incredible poor taste, we see that Julio is hiding in Michele’s closet as she undresses for bed. Julio jumps out with a knife and attempts to rape Michele. She screams, and Elvis, who just happens to be walking down the street, runs in and (accompanied by “action” music) manages to subdue Julio, who runs off. The is really repellent and sleazy stuff, and exactly what point the filmmakers were trying to make is anyone’s guess. Yuck!!
At the end, we’re back in the convent, sometime after the above events. Michele herself is considering whether to leave the order to be with Elvis.
E. himself drops by, and we learn that a) Father Gibbons is proving himself a human being by not pressing charges on Julio, b) who is obtaining psychriatic help. Thank goodness, I was worried that he’d be facing jail time for that little armed rape attempt. Elvis makes his case for Michele to leave the order and marry him, and splits.
The movie’s last bit has Irene taking Michele back to Father Gibbon’s church. The newly cool cleric has now introduced mod innovations, like letting Doc Elvis lead the parishioners in a rockin’ gospel tune (Right on!). We also get one last dig in on old fashioned, non-“relevant” religion. The old biddy ladies, in the pews, remark “give me the old days when you would go to mass and not think about a blessed thing.” Ha Ha, that nailed ’em.
Michele’s eyes drift between the rockin’ but religionin” Elvis and the crucifix, and the film finally, FINALLY, ends, with Michele still undecided (although I think we can assume she’ll end up with Elvis). This lack of an answer is the final insult to the audience, or would be if anybody who watched this flick could give a rat’s ass. Because this ordeal is finally, FINALLY over!
Hey, did I mention that this movie runs a grand total of eighty minutes?
Assuming anyone has actually read this far, I guess their question would be something along the line of Hey, Ken, I’m sure this movie sucks and all, but I mean, seven pages worth? C’mon!
I would have agreed with you before this article. I’ve seen the movie before, in fact it’s part of my rather sizable personal collection of bad movies. But it wasn’t until I sat down to really dissect this movie that I discovered how really awful this film is, moment by moment, scene by scene, actor by actor, line by line.
In particular, the film’s gutlessness is its overwhelming flaw. It wanted to be hip and radical, but also didn’t want to alienate the middle class audiences whose attendance was necessary to the film’s turning a profit. At the same time, its utter lack of complexity is atrocious, even contemptible. Everybody that’s good is flawless, everybody that’s not is an utter and completely irredeemable jerk and fool. The film’s few lame attempts to work around this fact, like Father Gibbons suddenly not only not having Julio arrested, but allowing rock music into the church, are so unbelievable as to negate their occurrence. How can we possibly believe that the Father Gibbons we see throughout the film is the one we see at the end.
Notably appalling are the movie’s racial politics. All the problems in the movie’s ghetto are caused by white people. All the film’s problems are solved by white people. The one contrary example, when the street radical “Brothers” break up fights after Elvis decks The Banker, makes no sense at all. What fights? Why would people start fighting because the gangster that preyed on them got punched? This completely incredible occurrence only happens so the filmmakers can have the Brothers break up fights (like, two of them) and then tell the police that they’re not needed. But they are. The white cops are the ones to actually remove The Banker, after white guy Elvis hits him. I guess his downfall is supposed to be attributed to Irene, but that only works if you can believe a canny gangster would threaten a nun (!) in front of all sorts of witnesses and then personally slug her one.
As well, it is Elvis and Michele who cure Amanda. And Barbara accomplishes whatever was supposedly accomplished with the grocery store. Hey, if this guy was ripping off everybody, why didn’t somebody just open another store and put him out of business? Even back in those days there was plenty of government money available for minorities to open businesses. But then, having “The People” actually take control of their own destinies would sabotage the idea that they are entirely helpless unless some white folks come and bail them out.
Then there’s the film’s contention that religion has no value unless it directly impacts on people’s immediate problems. This is insulting to the millions of people whose faith is based on belief in something that transcends the temporal world. And of course, every advocate of traditional religious belief is portrayed as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, “part of problem.”
Also irksome is the mixing of broad, poorly written comedy in some apparent attempt to make the “serious” part palatable. Half the time we’re “laughing” at the antics of the upstairs busybody neighbors or Barbara’s tricking guys to move furniture. The rest we’re dealing with an autistic child (in what must be the most inane and offensive possible), or drug abuse or watching, in agonizing detail, as a nut tries to rape a nun. The “comedy” sucks (except for the bit at the store with Ed Asner) and the “drama” is stupid and hamfisted. Neither element works, and are infinitely worse when presented alongside one another. And let’s not even talk about the occasional musical interlude.
Other than that, though, it’s a pretty good movie.
The King croons the opening tune, “Change of Habit.” The lyrics warn any members of the bourgeoisie in the audience that they will soon have all their comfortable notions challenged by this with-it flick. However, Elvis brings humor to soothe their wounds as well, as we watch the nuns “change” their “habits” for street clothes (get it?):
“If you’re in old habits,
Set in your old ways,
Changes are a’comin’,
“Cause these are changin’ days!
And if you’re head in is the sand
while things are going on,
What you need, What you need,
What you need…is a Change of Habit!”
Tell it, brother!
World-wise Elvis: “Man doesn’t live by bread alone. Especially the kind of bread you make runnin’ a free clinic!”
The Women comment on their racist neighbors, in the kind of hard-hitting dialog that, in a more just world, would have earned Change of Habit the screenwriting Oscar it so richly deserved:
Barbara: “I think our neighbors are Catholics.”
World-wise Michele, archly: “Yes, it’s too bad they’re not Christian.”
Oh, dear. Sister Barbara is sweet, but so naÃ¯ve…
Judgmental Father Gibbons: “I don’t like “underground” nuns who wear bobbed hair and silk stockings!”
Barbara: “Oh, but they’re nylon, Father!”
Doctor Elvis proves that laughter is the best medicine…
Pregnant Woman, being examined out in the waiting room(?): “You think it’s twins?”
Quippin’ Doc E (in an accent that sound like a really bad Elvis impression): “I think it’s the Green Bay Packers, that’s what I think!” (Much laughter ensues.)
Later, our mirthful medic points at a waiting patient with a cast on her leg: “Don’t you run off. I’ll 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 everybody’s got a piece of the action!!”
After a fight, a youth explains his actions: “I don’t let nobody calls my sister a dirty, stinkin’ bitch! [Pause for comedic effect.] She ain’t 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 mother’s grave.”
Elvis: “Your mother’s alive!”
Barbara laughingly suggests that Michele should have taken Elvis’ dinner invitation (despite the fact that they’re, you know, nuns and all):
Barbara (slyly): “If you don’t like my noodle ring, you should have accepted Doctor Carpenter’s invitation to dinner…I would have.”
Stern Taskmaster Michele: “That’ll be five Hail Marys.”
Irene: “Nuns and men don’t mix.”
Barbara: “Ohh, I think he’s cute.”
Barbara: “Honest, he’s groovy!”
Michele and Irene, in unison: “Twenty-five!”
After dinner, our various hero(ine)s engage in a “serious” political discussion, making the modern viewer really, really, really glad the ’70s are over with:
Barbara, to dinner guest Elvis: “Tell me. As a doctor do you diagnose what’s happening today…the riots, the student unrest, as…not really the death throes of an old order, but the birth pangs of a new one?”
Doc E.: “I didn’t know I was making a house call!”
Barbara, blathering on: “Well, I mean, don’t we all, each in our own way, have to man the barricades…”
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: “There’s no room down here for innocent bystanders. You’re either part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution.”
Tough Black Radical No. 2: “We’ve got a feeling you’re neither!”
Elvis uses humor to keep the peace during the football game:
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!”
As Elvis starts to croon “Sunshine Place,” a voice comes over the movie theater PA system, warning diabetic patrons to leave immediately:
“Well, once it was told to me,
we’re born with a magic key,
it opens the door to miracles and spring…”
to ice cream and carousels,
and yet this magic key won’t do a thing, unless…
You have a happy…
You have a happy…
You have a happy…warm smiling face!
I start believing…
let your address, be Sunshine Place…”
His scorn is as cold and sharp as a surgeon’s blade…
The Banker, to Elvis: “Hello. I was looking for you.”
Elvis: “I can’t help you, Banker. I’m not a veterinarian!”
Cheering on the with-it Michele, we cry “Tell it, Sister,” which can be taken in many groovy contexts:
Mean old Father Gibbons: “Don’t instruct me, Sister. I’ve preached more sermons then you’ll ever hear!”
Michele: “Yes, I’m sure we can rely on you to tell is as it was, Father!”