God Is the Bigger Elvis," airing on HBO April 5, is a recently Academy Award-nominated documentary about former actress Dolores Hart, who left a becoming-major career in Hollywood to become a cloistered nun. Hart, who gave Elvis his first onscreen kiss and costarred with him in two of his pictures, seemingly left “it” all. She was beautiful, talented and on the verge of big things, having already played opposite major mid-century dreamboats like Warren Beatty and Montgomery Clift and the aforementioned King of Rock, who liked to spend quiet moments on the set perusing the Good Book with Miss Hart.
Dolores, who attended Mass every morning as a young actress in Hollywood and prayed to get roles she wanted, had first visited Regina Laudis, an abbey of cloistered nuns in Connecticut, after a tiring run on Broadway. When a friend suggested she recuperate for a few days in the quiet of an abbey, Dolores said she wasn’t interested and furthermore, didn’t want anything to do with nuns. Her friend persisted, so Dolores went. Something caught her there, and she continued to visit periodically, even bringing up a possible vocation with the then-abbess, who told her she was too young, to go back and keep acting.
A few years later when Dolores was about to get married in an Edith Head-designed gown, a letter arrived from Regina Laudis. It said if she was still considering entering the convent, it would be a good time to do so. So Dolores did. She left the glamour and fame and handsome costars. She left her fiancé, the steadfast Catholic architect Don Robinson, who had already drawn up plans for their home. She left everything that everyone is supposed to want, everything that is supposed to make one happy. She had it all, so to speak, and left it all.
Dolores Hart’s leavetaking is, to this reviewer, one of the greatest moves ever made by anyone, at any time in history. She didn’t die of an overdose or end up on the "Love Boat" or even soldier on into the facelift years, deathly career retrospectives and animal-caretaking of the elder Hollywood stateswoman. To gaze upon Dolores’ face now is to see what life is actually like. She hasn’t had the usual surgery and plumping and hair-frothing of her same-age collegues. She has been gently weathered by time and sacrifice and is as beautiful as a raw piece of granite.
Dolores’ refusal to go down the wordly road before her reminds me of St. Clare of Assisi. Not coincidentally, Dolores had, in 1961, portrayed Clare in Michael Curtiz’ "Francis of Assisi." The footage of Dolores’ beautiful hair being ritually cut off certainly brings Clare’s initiation to mind.
"God Is the Bigger Elvis" also provides a fascinating glimpse of the sisters at Regina Laudis, who must be commended for allowing cameras into their lives. I suspect the last thing a cloistered nun would want is to be filmed. Seeing them, I’m filled with nothing but gratitude for their great sacrifice. It seems that monks and nuns shoulder the beams of prayer for the rest of us, who are frequently too “busy” to think about God. They are a sort of spiritual rainforest, except with a lot more privation and struggle. The nuns at Regina Laudis maintain a working farm, tend to visitors and, of course, spend lots of time in prayer. Undoubtedly, inquiries from would-be postulants and visitors will increase a great deal once this show airs. This reviewer would certainly love to visit for a few days of prayer and helping out with Giselle the wonder llama. (I am serious. Call me!)
There was a spate of articles about Mother Dolores attending the Academy Awards, all with the “Imagine that! A nun at the Oscars!” tone. Never mind that Dolores is a voting member of the Academy (one imagines her and the sisters settling in for an evening to watch, say, “Winter’s Bone” or “The Social Network.”) Never mind that Dolores was, so to speak, the real thing—a natural beauty and talent who turned away from Hollywood in favor of a much greater prize. It’s not surprising this documentary didn’t win the golden man-Baal they call Oscar. This is not really the sort of tale that Hollywood could really like or take seriously. The outcome of Dolores’ Hart story refutes all of the stories that the so-called “dream factory” likes to tell about itself.
There must be a place in the communion of saints for Don Robinson, though. He never got over Dolores and visited her for the rest of his life. He’s seen visiting Dolores in the film. Together, they seem like a reasonable elderly married couple except she is in religious garb, and he calls her “Mother.” Keep your Kleenex handy for this scene: you will need them. Robinson, who died after the documentary was made, surely must be a patron saint of abiding and selfless love.
"God Is the Bigger Elvis" is short and leaves one with many questions. How did Dolores’ contemporaries in Hollywood react to her decision? Does Dolores ever miss her former life? References abound to the supreme difficulty of living in close community and maintaining faith. One of the younger nuns quotes Dolores as saying that convent life can sometimes feel like being “skinned alive.” It’s surely not been that different than Hollywood, then? Only with far, far greater rewards.