Do you have to have gone to Catholic school to appreciate nun movies?
First, let's get this one out of the way. I'm sure it's the first one you thought of. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that it's everywhere—on TV, on DVD, even on Broadway and the West End.
The sister and the hoods in Sister Act
I like the music, the acting is great—especially Maggie Smith and Kathy Najimy—but I prefer Harvey Keitel in films like Bad Lieutenant, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Taxi Driver. The nuns sing do-wop for the pope?
Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant: An extremely lapsed Catholic
My favorite actress in Sister Act (not the best, just my favorite) is Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus (a nun's name I never heard in four different parochial schools). Mary Wickes was resurrected for Sister Act because almost thirty years before she had played Sister Clarissa in . . .
Hijinks at St. Francis School
Based on the novel Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey. This is my all-time favorite nun movie. I saw it in the theater in 1966 and am ashamed to admit I was surprised at the end when Hayley Mills as Mary Clancy decided to enter the convent. (Sorry for the spoiler, but there's no excuse for not seeing that coming. Even for me when I was twelve.) I had a crush on June Harding as Mary's partner in crime, Rachel Devery.
Hayley Mills in her American films has never had the chance to show the talent she was able to in her British movies (Tiger Bay, Whistle Down the Wind, and especially The Chalk Garden, directed by Ronald Neame, playing opposite Deborah Kerr and Hayley's father John Mills).
Hayley Mills is more mature than Deborah Kerr in The Chalk Garden
In The Trouble with Angels, Hayley Mills delivers one of the most self-aware lines in Hollywood movies since Bette Davis. The girls are taken to an old people's home for Christmas and Mary Clancy sees the mother superior (Rosalind Russell as good as she was in Gypsy or His Girl Friday) comfort an old woman whose son has better things to do than visit. Mary marches up to the mother superior and says: “I hope I die young. And very wealthy.”
And when the mother superior's close friend Sister Ligouri dies and she throws herself across the coffin . . . I am not crying!
On the lighter side . . .
Mary a little too close to Elvis in A Change of Habit
Mary Tyler Moore as an undercover nun opposite Elvis's singing doctor. Romance and bad religious music ensue.
And if you're going to mix guitars with crucifixes . . .
Debbie Reynold as The Singing Nun with platonic friends
Debbie does Dominique. Vatican II-era Catholics remember the Belgian nun Soeur Sourire (“Sister Smile”) whose hit song “Dominique” got her on the Ed Sullivan show as well as top forty radio in the U.S. Debbie Reynolds played The Singing Nun in a film co-starring Chad Everett and Ricardo Montalban.
The real singing nun
The real singing nun, Jeanine Deckers, had a less happy life after stardom than the fictitious character Sister Ann played by Debbie Reynolds probably did.
Cecile de France as Soeur Sourire
Soeur Sourire is a new film starring the Belgian actress Cécile de France that purports to tell the true story of the sixties religious pop sensation who left the convent and eventually committed suicide.
Then there's the psychological crime story . . .
Anne Bancroft in Agnes of God
Based on the play by John Pielmeier. Investigating infanticide in the convent, Jane Fonda is the agnostic psychiatrist and Anne Bancroft is the cigarette-smoking, widowed mother superior with the oddly Jewish-sounding name of Sister Miriam Ruth. It fits, because the mother superior tolerates argument from the non-believing psychiatrist more than any Catholic nun I ever knew did. Disputation comes more easily than faith to some people.
The heartwarming ecumenical fairy tale . . .
Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field
Based on the novel by William E. Barrett. With Sidney Poiter and Austrian star Lilia Skala, who learned acting in Max Reinhardt's theater before escaping Nazi Europe with her Jewish husband. Funny, but no one mentions race in this story. Homer Smith (Poitier) uses his skin to demonstrate the English word “black,” but that's all.
The priest-nun love story that dare not speak its name . . .
Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's
This was one of Ingrid Bergman's last American films before her affair with Roberto Rossellini made the American movie-going public turn on her. If she hadn't just made them believe she was a saintly tubercular nun on film, they might have accepted her real-life passions more readily. (In going to Europe I think she may also have been trying to escape Alfred Hitchcock's figurative and literal clutches. Bergman did St. Mary's between Hitchcock's Spellbound and Notorious, and a lot has been published lately on just how sick his behavior toward actresses was. Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles all had to run away from him, breaking contracts in some cases.)
Another forbidden love story, this time on a true island paradise during World War II . . .
Deborah Kerr, afraid of the Japanese and a U. S. Marine, in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
This film deeply affected most people who saw it . . .
From the novel by Kathryn Hulme. Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke is the only movie nun I can think of who leaves the convent. Mary Tyler Moore even said no to Elvis to stay in the religious life. Our film fantasies of nuns require them to reject the world and give us an example of purity of conscience few real human beings can maintain.
What we need from movie nuns is their commitment to a cause higher than themselves. If they take vows we don't have to.