By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — With the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its calls for reform of the organization — and the ongoing debate surrounding the assessment — nuns are in the news.
They also continue to be, as they have been for decades, an intermittent presence in popular culture. Just a few months ago, women religious made their most recent appearance on movie screens, though it was hardly one of their more favorable portrayals.
Co-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s “The Three Stooges” featured women religious prominently, and identified them as members of a real-life religious order, the Sisters of Mercy. (The Farrelly brothers, it seems, have two aunts in that community.)
All the more unfortunate, then, that these characters were portrayed in a cruel, vulgar and sometimes violent light.
Happily, ’twas not ever thus: A reverential atmosphere permeated 1943’s screen version of author Franz Werfel’s “The Song of Bernadette.” Director Henry King’s film featured Jennifer Jones, in her screen debut, as Bernadette Soubirous, the youthful French visionary of Lourdes, who afterward became a Sister of Charity and Christian Instruction of Nevers. Jones won best actress at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of the future saint.
“The Song of Bernadette” was also successful at the box office. So successful, in fact, that it paved the way for numerous other faith-themed pictures over the next two decades.
The most recent Oscar nomination for an actress playing a nun went to Meryl Streep for her turn as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in “Doubt” (2008). Dramatist John Patrick Shanley directed this movie version of his sublime Pulitzer Prize-winning play about suspected sexual abuse in a 1960s parochial school. Nonetheless, his work can arguably be much better appreciated as a stage piece.
The stage version is also superior in the case of 1985’s “Agnes of God,” a murder mystery set in a convent. The Catholic News Service review calls the screen adaptation — with Jane Fonda as a psychiatrist and Meg Tilly as the titular novice she’s brought in to assess — “pretentious and shallow.”
The last Oscar actually garnered for a nun role went to Susan Sarandon for “Dead Man Walking” (1995). Sarandon portrayed the real-life Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille who is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.
The film, based on her memoir of the same title and directed by Tim Robbins, dwelt little on religious life and instead focused on the powerful dialogues between Sarandon’s Sister Prejean and convicted killer Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn.
World War II notwithstanding, a far more lighthearted mood prevailed in 1945’s “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” In this follow-up to the previous year’s “Going My Way,” we find Bing Crosby reprising his Oscar-winning role of Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley, this time opposite Ingrid Bergman as overworked school principal Sister Mary Benedict.
Directed by Leo McCarey from an original script he co-wrote with Dudley Nichols, the film secured Academy Award nominations for both its leads as well as for McCarey. It also became the first sequel to be nominated for best picture.
A far greater degree of immortality, however, was bestowed on the film by director Frank Capra when he put its title on the marquee of a movie theater in fictional Bedford Falls. There it can be glimpsed as James Stewart’s George Bailey rushes home at the exultant finish to “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946).
Another bit of Hollywood lore: Just before beginning rehearsals for Maxwell Anderson’s 1946 play “Joan of Lorraine” and just as filming began for “Joan of Arc” (1948), the movie based on that play, Bergman performed in half-hour radio condensations of “Bells.” So the imaginary Sister Benedict may have informed two portrayals of the historical St. Joan.
A very sweet, sadly underrated and deeply spiritual film, 1949’s “Come to the Stable,” was based on a Clare Boothe Luce short story about two French nuns from the fictitious Order of Holy Endeavor. Sisters Margaret (Loretta Young) and Scholastica (Celeste Holm) arrive in a fictional version of Bethlehem, Conn., to build a hospital. The power of prayer is mixed with a high-stakes tennis match and considerable finagling over a piece of property.
Young and Holm both received Oscar nominations, together with a third cast member, Elsa Lanchester.
“Stable” director Henry Koster was a dab hand at religiously themed pictures, including “The Robe” (1953), “A Man Called Peter” (1955) and “The Singing Nun” (1966).
Directed and co-written (with John Lee Mahin) by John Huston, and set during World War II, 1957’s “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” told the story of two victims of shipwreck: Marine Cpl. Allison (Robert Mitchum) and Irish-born Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). Based on the novel by Charles Shaw, the film shares similarities with Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951), but boasts more compelling dialogue.
Released in 1959, director Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story” was based on real events. Audrey Hepburn starred as Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian who, in 1930, enters a convent and becomes known as Sister Luke. Sent to the Congo, she performs brilliantly as an assistant to an atheist physician (Peter Finch) treating tropical diseases. But she struggles with her vows because attracting funds for her work means she has to publicize herself.
“Lilies of the Field” (1963) finds a group of East German nuns freshly arrived in New Mexico and eking out a meager existence on farmland willed to their order.
Believing he has been sent by God, they enlist itinerant handyman Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier, who won the Oscar for best actor) to build them a chapel. Smith, a Baptist, and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala, Oscar-nominated as best supporting actress) sling Bible quotations at each other as Mother Maria stubbornly insists that Smith won’t be paid for his work.
Directed by Ralph Nelson from William E. Barrett’s novel, the film popularized the call-and-response “Amen,” which has been the bane of summer church camps ever since.
By no means a great piece of cinema, “The Trouble With Angels” (1966) is nevertheless a good example of what movies involving Catholic nuns were like before the darker themes of works such as “Doubt” emerged. So take it as a time capsule.
Ida Lupino directed this episodic comedy, based on the novel by Jane Trahey, about the misadventures of students Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) and Rachel Devery (June Harding) at the St. Francis Academy for Girls, presided over by Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior.
Bubble bath powder in the nuns’ sugar bowls? Woo-hoo! This still being the mid-1960s, however, maturity and respect for religious devotion settles in on the girls over time.
By contrast with “The Three Stooges,” moreover, no nuns were harmed in the making of this motion picture.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops