In his long and otherwise undistinguished movie career, Elvis Presley just about did it all — surfing, kissing, dancing, singing, swimming, winking, and occasionally, racing cars. He played a cowboy and an Indian, a boxer and a pineapple heir, and was not above doubling up as a set of twins. There were odes to shrimp and testaments to gambling, and if it was worth doing, it was worth doing without a shirt. But for all the frivolity on display, and any number of forgettable tunes that should have torpedoed his career, he waited until his final onscreen appearance to top everything that came before. Yes, in 1969’s Change of Habit, perhaps the one time he chose stone-faced acting over swiveling hips, the King of Rock & Roll cured autism. Not with mere words or odd theories, mind you, but right before our eyes. Nobody listened, of course, and the occasional diagnosis eventually became a virtual plague, but in that curious age of hippie idealism, the one man among them with both sideburns and a fondness for Nixon actually accomplished something lasting and true. The silver screen would never hear from the likes of him again.
Elvis is Dr. John Carpenter, a slumming man of medicine who, after losing a best friend to war, decides to give back and set up a free clinic in the worst possible neighborhood that can also double as a Hollywood set. We know it’s bad because few ask for help who aren’t Puerto Rican or black, and there’s even a chubby, effeminate gangster who keeps “his people” good and stoned while running a supermarket racket. He’s also a loan shark, and he’s not about to stand for some bleeding heart who has his sights set on curing the neighborhood’s woes. Into this hell’s kitchen steps Mary Tyler Moore, playing a chipper nun with all the innocence a woman of god can muster while still retaining what passes for a sex drive. She’s part of her order’s latest experiment, which seeks “real world” experience to balance the sexless prayer and lily-white devotion of the convent. Yes, there’s a good chance our good sister will be murdered, but there’s an equal chance she’ll be seduced on a merry-go-round while America’s favorite son licks an ice cream cone. And if you stick around through the end credits, you just might see her look at Elvis, then at Jesus, and back and forth again until it’s clear she wants to be forcibly taken right there on the altar. But that’s all window dressing. Sure, Elvis is around to eventually save MTM from a brutal rape after the world’s most incoherent game of touch football, but at the center, there is the miracle cure. And autism’s eventual Waterloo.
After MTM fails to reach Amanda, a dirty Hispanic wild child who best approximates Helen Keller in her Miracle Worker phase, Elvis takes over. “She’s resisting you; she’s hiding behind a wall of anger.” His solution? “Rage Reduction”, which involves little more than grabbing the young girl with sudden force, holding her in a vice-like grip, and whispering “I love you” over and over again until the kicking and screaming stop. Sure, it’s pretty much the King’s seduction method in miniature, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. And how. Amanda roars like a caged lion for what amounts to several hours, but Elvis, never breaking a sweat, offers his unmatched logic: “We’re gonna hold you until you get rid of all your hate….You’ll start to give love and take love.” I’m not positive the literature, even then, believed autism to be a mere behavioral problem caused by poverty and infrequent bathing, but Elvis believes it to be so, and the girl does eventually talk. Monotone, grunt-like barks, but talking nonetheless. She even has the wherewithal to ask for a hug. It was, after all, a time for the improbable, and not entirely unexpected, especially in the same movie where Elvis, faced with an underage Latina firecracker bent on removing her top, takes a stand for decency and virtue. Naturally, he would be dead eight years later.