A Nun’s Return to the Red Carpet
NEW ROLE Dolores Hart left Hollywood in 1963. The Abbey of Regina Laudis has been her home since.
By WENDY CARLSON | Published: February 24, 2012
“God Is the Bigger Elvis” has its premiere on HBO on April 5; special free screening held at the Bantam Cinema in Litchfield on March 24 and 25 at 12 noon with a Q and A.
IT is a story straight out of Hollywood. A beautiful young starlet walks away from a blossoming movie career to become a nun, and 50 years later she returns to the Academy Awards ceremony — as the subject of an Oscar-nominated film. The real-life drama of Dolores Hart, known as Mother Prioress to the nuns here at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, unfolds in the HBO film “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” one of five nominees for best documentary (short subject). The 35-minute film examines Mother Dolores’s transformation from a Hollywood ingénue and the recipient of Elvis Presley’s first on-screen kiss to a cloistered Benedictine nun at the abbey, where for the past nine years she has been the prioress, the second in authority below the abbess, Mother David Serna. Scheduled to be shown on HBO in April, the documentary offers a first-time glimpse inside the enclosed abbey and tells the stories of several nuns who live there. It also reveals Mother Dolores’s poignant 47-year friendship with her former fiancé, Don Robinson, a Los Angeles architect, who visited her regularly until his death last year. But is it compelling enough to earn an Oscar? The nuns are praying it is.
For more than a decade, Mother Dolores, 73, has had peripheral neuropathy, a painful neurological disorder that makes walking difficult at times. But on Sunday night, wearing her black habit, she will step out of a chauffeured limousine and make her first red-carpet appearance at the Oscars since she last attended in 1962. “It’s very exciting — absolutely,” she said. “Since I was a little girl, the movies and Hollywood have been a major part of my life.”
Rebecca Cammisa, the film’s director, who will be escorting her, said that “the evening is more her moment than mine; it’s about her coming home as a Hollywood legacy.”
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, while engaged to Mr. Robinson, she decided to leave Hollywood forever. Shortly after an autograph-signing session for what would be her last movie, “Come Fly with Me,” a comedy about three flight attendants trying to find husbands, she packed a single suitcase and left New York for Bethlehem.
The abbey — a converted brass factory set on 400 bucolic acres, which includes a chapel, a dormitory and a working farm — has been her home ever since.
It was not until she visited Washington in 2010 and met with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, then the apostolic nuncio to the United States, that the idea of making a film about monastic life was introduced. He wanted to make a film about consecrated life, she said, because he thought that people needed to understand it better.
“I said to him, ‘Archbishop, it’s been 50 years since I was in Hollywood,’ ” she said. “ ‘All my contacts are dead or gone.’ ”
“Have no worries, Dolores,” she recalled him 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, an executive director at HBO, who has a weekend home near Bethlehem, had suggested to Ms. Cammisa that the abbey and its Mother Prioress might make an interesting subject for a documentary.
Ms. Cammisa, whose mother had been a nun for 10 years, had filmed a documentary titled “Sister Helen,” about a Benedictine nun who ran a halfway house in the South Bronx, that was shown in 2002. In creating the new documentary, she sought to explore not only why Dolores Hart left Hollywood, but also what she had done all the years since. “We wanted to know her daily life, and also what it is about abbey life that drew these other women to it,” Ms. Cammisa said.