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God Is the Bigger Elvis

Sat Nov 17, 2012 7:19 pm

Just watched it last night a nice little feature
Available on Amazon.com as a DVD-R only release
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God Is the Bigger Elvis is a 2011 documentary film about actress Dolores Hart, who abandoned her successful career at the age of 24 to become a Benedictine nun. The film was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
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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, executive producer of the film and president of HBO Documentary Films, 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. Like the 35 other nuns in this self-supporting community, Mother Dolores follows a strict routine: praying seven times a day, chanting in Latin and eating meals in silence. Since taking her vows, she has served in many roles, including a baker, an education director, even a coffin maker. But as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has continued to cast her votes for Oscar winners year after year, watching DVDs of nominated films in her cinderblock basement office, where she keeps 20 finches; her African gray parrot, Toby; and a Great Dane, Inke.
“These women didn’t leave their identities behind when they walked through the door,” Ms. Cammisa said. “Mother Dolores was an actress, and that didn’t end when she joined the abbey.”

Mother Dolores built a film archive and got behind the camera to record footage of abbey life, some of which is used in the documentary. In the 1980s, she appealed to her friends, the actors James Douglas and Patricia Neal, to help her finance a local theater company and build an open-air theater on the abbey grounds, which is used each summer. And in December, when the abbey launched a $4 million campaign to pay for extensive renovations mandated by the town, it was Mother Dolores who appealed to the public, through the news media, for a Christmas miracle.
She is co-writing a book about her life with Richard DeNeut, vice president of Globe Photos; she is the national spokeswoman for the Neuropathy Association; and she continues to answer fan mail, often about her roles with Elvis, with whom she starred in “Loving You” in 1957 and in “King Creole” in 1958. During her brief film career, she also starred with Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, Connie Francis and Anthony Quinn, but it was her role in the 1960 cult classic “Where the Boys Are” that led to an invitation to join the Academy.

Her most prophetic role was in the 1961 film “Francis of Assisi,” in which she plays Clare, a beautiful young woman who leaves a life of nobility to found an order of nuns. But her own spiritual journey was not nearly as romantic as that of her film character. Seven years passed between the day she joined the abbey as a postulant and the day she took her final vows, in 1970. The initial adjustment, she says in the film, was terrifying: “I had no idea that it was going to mean singing seven times a day, working in the garden, 10 people in a bathroom, the sternness.” In the film, she compares it to being skinned alive.

But the film also shows another side of abbey life: nuns engaged in an impromptu snowball fight; Mother Dolores holding hands with her former fiancé; a Keystone Kops-like chase after a loose cow. And, while the nuns often communicate with visitors from behind a wooden grate, some of them, including Mother Dolores, use an iPhone to take photographs of friends and to return e-mails.
Still, why give up Hollywood for cloistered life?

“How do you explain God? How do you explain love?” she asks in the film.
Her answer is both simple and enigmatic: “I never felt I was leaving Hollywood,” she says. “I never felt I was leaving anything that I was given. The abbey was like a grace of God that just entered my life in a way that was totally unexpected — and God was the vehicle. He was the bigger Elvis.”
“” has its premiere on HBO on April 5. A free special screening will be held at the Bantam Cinema in Litchfield on March 25; reservations are required.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 4, 2012
An article in some editions last Sunday about the HBO documentary “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” using information from the network, described incorrectly screenings scheduled at Bantam Cinema in Litchfield, Conn., and also misstated the title of an HBO official involved in the film. A screening on March 24 at noon is private; a screening on March 25 at noon is free and open to the public, though reservations are required. And the HBO official, Sheila Nevins, is president of HBO Documentary Films, as well as executive producer of the film; she is not an executive director at HBO.
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A version of this article appeared in print on February 26, 2012, on page CT10 of the New York edition with the headline: A Nun Returns To the Red Carpet.
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