The night I watched Change of Habit was the third night in a row I had watched a movie involving nuns, none of which were The Nun. If you’re finding time for those Conjuring spinoffs, you should consider better decisions like charity work or losing a decade to cocaine like Richard Dreyfuss.
It began with the Leonard Maltin books I had just purchased; I’ve started using them to cut through all the crap on streaming services. God knows “Film Twitter” has no helpful recommendations–that’s an ideal environment for pretending to find value in films Roger Ebert rightfully hated twenty years ago. I recently saw a tweet that praised The Village for being about “collectively denying the reality of tragedy and suffering and constructing a deceptive mythology of misinformation for a presumed greater good.” Don’t you feel like a teacher suffering through a student’s desperation to hit a word count reading that? One of the few things I remember about The Village is Adrian Brody, hot off winning an Academy Award, doing something similar to Cuba Gooding Jr in Radio, while chasing after people in a monster costume. Like any fond memories of Don Vito, I think it’s best to leave The Village in 2004.
Now my brain is replaying every mentally-challenged performance that’s aged poorly. The guy who played Doug in The Hangover, he also played Ben Affleck’s mentally- challenged brother in Gigli. I remember Ben Affleck grabbing a flashlight out of his glove compartment and making his brother think he was on the phone. I also remember after the Gigli debacle, Ben Affleck was on SNL doing a sketch where Fred Armisen played a mentally-challenged guy working as an extra in Gigli who kept telling Ben Affleck the film wouldn’t be good. The line I remember is, “You after the lesbian again, I liked it the first time when it was called Chasing Amy.” I could continue talking about forgotten SNL sketches that made an impact on me, but we’ll discuss Chris Kattan’s Mango seducing Garth Brooks another time.
My favorite problematic mentally-challenged performance is Donnie Wahlberg in Dreamcatcher. It’s bizarre how often my brain goes to him singing the Scooby Doo theme before fighting an alien. It’s bizarre in general how often I think about Dreamcatcher. Whenever I screw up I’ll say to myself “I duddits!”
Sean Penn not only has an infamous mentally-challenged performance in his filmography, but he also starred in the first of three nun films I recently watched, Dead Man Walking. The film is textbook Oscar-bait and successful Oscar-bait because Susan Sarandon won Best Actress. I’ve been watching clips of Siskel and Ebert on Letterman and during one appearance for Oscars predictions, they launched into how much of a joke the voting process is for The Oscars. The way they summed it up, 4,000 residents from Orange County vote based on the buzz they hear about films they aren’t taking the time to watch. That was an observation made in 1990-1991 and some people still have trouble realizing The Oscars is this trivial party where calorie-deprived elites in designer attire choose winners by pointing blindly at posters.
At one point while watching Dead Man Walking I paused it and was disheartened to see I had 50 minutes to go. It’s a very dark film that had me zoning out so severely that I could only focus on Jack Black having a brief cameo early on before getting several lines near the end. Black and Jon Abrahams play Sean Penn’s brothers. Jon Abrahams seems like a guy who auditioned for a lot of roles Scott Caan ended up getting.
The last thing worth noting about Dead Man Walking is Jack Black and R. Lee Ermey star in that film six years prior to sharing the greatest movie kiss in Saving Silverman.
The 2nd nun film I watched the following day was Lilies of the Field. Leonard Maltin gave it 3 out of 4 stars. If you’re looking for a Sidney Poitier film he gave a perfect score to, check out Edge of the City–it’s on my “to watch” list and I expect great things because it also stars John Cassavetes. The most recent thing I saw John Cassavetes in was an Elaine May film, Mikey and Nicky, where Cassavetes stars opposite his good friend Peter Falk. Great film. My favorite thing about it was how much John Cassavetes’ character reminded me of Joey Pants playing Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos.
Whenever I can, I’ll bring up Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast so here goes: Mentioning Sidney Poitier’s name reminded me of an episode where Kliff Nesteroff was on to promote his book The Comedians. Comedian Jack Carter was described by Nesteroff as one of the angriest guys he’s ever met. Nesteroff would say things like “so you were on an episode of The Carol Burnett Show” and Jack Carter’s reply was “yeah……..VICKI LAWRENCE WAS A NAZI CUNT!”
Where does Sidney Poitier fit in? Jack Carter lived across the street from Poitier in Beverly Hills. Jack Carter also had a black lawn jockey statue on his front yard–now isn’t that strange to see in the yard of a Jewish comedian accusing Carol Burnett Show cast members of working for the Gestapo?
Lilies of the Field was a delightful experience. I don’t know what else to say because given the recent political climate, I feel like I’m at school without pants while saying, “I just loved that movie where a black guy suddenly finds himself serving four white women and building a church for free!” It’d only be more troubling if I mention I’m writing this after performing in a Zoom minstrel show and haven’t had time to take my makeup off.
It’s finally time we get to the main event, 1969’s Change of Habit.
Change of Habit appealed to me because I was curious as to what exactly an Elvis Presley film in 1969 looked like. You’re currently reading an article on a film site, so chances are you’re already aware of the radical shift regarding what movies got made in the late ’60s compared to what came previously. Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and other titles proved that the lunatics now ran the asylum. Because of this transformation happening in film and other corners of America, I had to see if an Elvis Presley film addressed that change, or like Elvis’ music career, existed on its own platform and refused to be molded by current trends.
Surprisingly, Change of Habit is Elvis Presley attempting to find a fresh edge in his brand.
Change of Habit was a very surreal experience. That word and “Lynchian” are tossed around excessively, but I truly looked like a guest on The Eric Andre Show who walked in unprepared while watching the film. My jaw stayed dropped for a majority of the runtime.
I’m trying to remember the exact moment I was dropped into this environment unprepared. I think the first moment was when Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair, and Jane Elliot enter a building with the name “John Carpenter” printed on the side. Finding out Elvis is playing the character named John Carpenter sent me down a maddening rabbit hole, as I realized ten years after this film’s release, Elvis would be dead and a TV film about his life would be directed by the John Carpenter you know. To make things weirder, Kurt Russell plays Elvis in that film and as a child actor, Kurt Russell starred in the Elvis Presley film It Happened at the World’s Fair.
That fun fact mildly freaked me out. Change of Habit only further capitalized on this psych out.
Soon after that, Elvis Presley explains to the three women how bad the neighborhood they’re in is by saying “the last three nurses here couldn’t take it. Two of them got raped, one even against her will.” Along with that memorable quote you also hear words we now refer to as “the n word” and “the f word.” The language in Change of Habit is so alien given the fact that every other Elvis movie was castrated enough to be approved by the National Legion of Decency.
The grit in Change of Habit is a surprising turn for Elvis because this seems to be the one instance in his career where he addresses the changing times. Unlike The Beatles, Elvis Presley never evolved past the sound that got him onto The Ed Sullivan Show. His final hits like “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love” don’t mirror any Woodstock act (well, maybe Sha Na Na). Similar to Frank Sinatra, another icon who around this time also aligned with Richard Nixon, Elvis represented those lost within the social landscape who wanted to return to the America that existed prior to JFK’s assassination and the Vietnam War. The inability to find a new direction, or even care about finding one, is probably why Elvis morphed into a bloated, rhinestone-jumpsuit parody of himself soon after 1969.
That period of decline is the era for which most people now recognize Elvis; it might have to do with how George Lucas failed to afford the rights to Elvis’ music for American Graffiti. Surprisingly, that harmed Elvis more than it did George Lucas: American Graffiti became a monumental blockbuster and its complete lack of Elvis allowed audiences to become nostalgic for the ’50s and early ’60s without looking back on Elvis’ peak. Without that definitive time capsule reminding people of a better Elvis, it’s not surprising most can only recall the tragic third act of his life.
While discussing a variety of things in this piece, like American Graffiti and members of the Catholic faith, it feels right to mention I recently saw Heaven Help Us, a film clearly influenced by American Graffiti. You not only hear “Blue Suede Shoes” over that film’s end credits, but the teens in that movie at one point are in a theater watching Blue Hawaii. Clearly, whoever owned the rights to Elvis’ work in the mid-’80s were attempting to right the wrongs of Colonel Tom Parker telling George Lucas to either cough up more cash or get lost.
Speaking of music, the lack of music in Change of Habit is very noticeable. Elvis sings the title song and there are only two moments where he grabs a guitar and performs with a group of people. Only once is musical logic displayed when Elvis suddenly launches into a song while on a carousel–it’s another instance of this film making you trip because Elvis’ song is used to cure a child of a symptom related to autism.
Don’t ask–I wouldn’t even know where to begin discussing this film’s questionable commentary on autism.
There’s no denying that Change of Habit is a bad movie. The plot development is horrible and there are so many sideplots mentioned briefly before being temporarily abandoned for 10-30 minutes. There’s a mobster controlling the film’s troubled neighborhood who you know immediately will be the film’s big antagonist–he pops in briefly multiple times until a quick resolution near the end that starts with him backhanding a nun.
There’s a minor character we see forgetful glimpses: Julio (Nefti Millet) attempts to force himself on a nun before Elvis intervenes, preventing the film from turning into Bad Lieutenant, but he also fades away quickly. The film’s final scene appears to be going for the then-trendy unhappy/ambiguous ending, but feels more like a soap-opera cliffhanger.
Watching legendary entertainers like Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore in the middle of this crazed attempt at New Hollywood gloom makes Change of Habit a unique viewing experience; it also helps by watching more “controlled” films like Dead Man Walking and Lilies in the Field prior beforehand. Those films, rewarded by gatekeepers as stiff as The Academy Awards, make you see the refreshing absurdity in Change of Habit. You need to experience those kind of films being recommend by a conventional critic like Leonard Maltin because that’s how you discover the revitalizing instability in a fascinating mess like Change of Habit.
There you have it, the kindest words ever spoken about Change of Habit from someone who didn’t get kicked out of Graceland for attempting to kiss The King’s toilet seat. After writing about films like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and Skidoo, and Change of Habit, I’m learning few films are as energizing as these colorful debacles. It’s where you learn the meaning of words like “so bad it’s good” when they’re applied to things like Plan 9 From Outer Space. While the indifferent boredom brought on by routine mediocrity is immediately forgotten, stimulating wrecks like Change of Habit are thrills you never forget.