God Is The Bigger Elvis: A Nun’s Story?
Who is bigger than Elvis? It's obvious!
I pride myself on seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the big night, often aided by my friends in the industry who get advance copies for viewing because they are voting members of the Academy. But, this year, I got horribly behind and missed a number of nominated films, including an HBO documentary entitled “God Is the Bigger Elvis”. A confessed documentary junkie, I would watch this film no matter what, but the title made it even more alluring.
“God Is the Bigger Elvis” is a true Hollywood story, screaming to become a full feature film starring, I think, Meryl Streep. A 35 minute short subject about the life of Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Landis, or Mother Dolores, “God Is the Bigger Elvis” tells the story of young Hollywood starlet Dolores Hart who, in the middle of making it big, abandoned the fame and fortune she was about to acquire to become a cloistered Benedictine nun.
During her brief career, Dolores Hart appeared in 10 movies, and in 1959, the year she turned 21, she earned a Theater World Award and a Tony nomination for her role as a featured actress in “The Pleasure of His Company.” But her future shifted that same year, when she first visited the abbey to unwind from her hectic performance schedule. She was already a devout Catholic, and the abbey visit, she says in the film, gave her “a sense of peace and interior renewal.” Four years later she decided to leave Hollywood forever and, shortly after an autograph-signing session for what would be her last movie, “Come Fly with Me,” she packed a single suitcase and left New York for Bethlehem to establish her life at the abbey – a converted brass factory set on 400 bucolic acres, which includes a chapel, a dormitory and a working farm. The abbey has been her home ever since.
Nearly fifty years later, while visiting Archbishop Pietro Sambi in Washington, the idea of making a film about monastic life was introduced. The Archbishop wanted to make a film about consecrated life and thought, given Mother Dolores’ background, that she could help.
“I said to him, ‘Archbishop, it’s been 50 years since I was in Hollywood,’ ” Mother Dolores said. “ ‘All my contacts are dead or gone.’ ” “Have no worries, Dolores,” she recalled the Archbishop saying. “The Lord will find a way.”
Two days after she returned to the abbey, HBO called. Call it sheer coincidence or heavenly intervention, but Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, who has a weekend home near Bethlehem, had suggested to Ms. Cammisa, the film’s director, that the abbey and its Mother Prioress might make an interesting subject for a documentary. And the rest is history.
But what does any of this have to do with Elvis? Well, it seems that, among her accomplishments, Dolores holds the distinction of being the recipient of Elvis’ first on-screen kiss. While the documentary does not explore whether or not there was any connection between that kiss and Dolores’ decision to join an abbey, it does offer a glimpse of what life is like as a cloistered nun.
“God Is the Bigger Elvis” did not take home the statue, but Mother Dolores certainly made a lasting impression on the Academy crowd. The only person to walk the red carpet in a black habit, the 73 year old Prioress was poised and, oddly, at home in the frenzied environment. She smiled and waved at the receptive crowd and, when asked what she thought Elvis would think of her return to Hollywood, Mother Dolores said she thought he would be proud.
“God Is the Bigger Elvis” premiers on HBO April 5 and I can’t wait to see it!