In the trailer for Michael Curtiz's 1961 religious epic Francis of Assisi, actors Bradford Dillman and Dolores Hart are described as being "inspired" by their respective roles as Saint Francis and Saint Clare. In the case of Hart, that wasn't just Hollywood hyperbole.
Two years after portraying a beautiful young woman who leaves a life of privilege to become a cloistered nun, Hart walked away from one of the hottest careers in Hollywood and became a cloistered nun. It was a shocking, life-imitates-art transmogrification for the star of Where the Boys Are, and it's the story at the core of God is the Bigger Elvis, the fascinating but highly flawed Oscar-nominated short from HBO Documentary Films.
The film's cheekily comparative title comes from Hart herself in an on-camera interview, and makes reference to her two most famous leading men. Opposite the latter, she appeared twice: in 1957's Loving You, in which she gave Presley his first movie kiss; and a year later, in King Creole, reportedly Elvis's favorite of his films.
Opposite the former, Mother Prioress Dolores Hart has appeared daily (and exclusively) for the last half century. Today, the soft-voiced, 73-year-old is the spiritual leader of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery and self-sustaining farm in rural Bethlehem Connecticut - the only one of its type in the United States (and likely the only one in the world to include a nun who canoodled with George Hamilton).
Since Mother Dolores in her wimple and veil bears little resemblance to the bobbysoxer who locked lips with the (Earthly) King, filmmakers Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson wisely open their documentary with a reminder of Hart's youthful visage, forever frozen in cinematic amber. In a scene from King Creole, Presley (looking iconic in black & white) serenades the dewy teenager with a ballad called "Young Dreams," as tears of love well in her (monochromatic, yet somehow still blue) eyes.
But God is the Bigger Elvis packs an even more baffling emotional wallop when we discover that Hart also had a real-life beau - Don Robinson, a handsome young architect to whom she was engaged when she chose a life of supplication. And he's still alive. And he still loves her. As the Good Lord Himself might say (in the Old Testament) oy vey! It's a heart-breaking story of lost love that seems made for the movies, and it's one that even Hart herself can't explain.
"How do you explain 'love'?" she laments, as she sits in her cluttered, monastic cell with her pet bird. "I was in love with God."
I hope God appreciates Mother Dolores, because she sure gave up a lot to serve Him, and apparently continues to each day. And she's not the only one. There are 33 other nuns living at the Abbey, each engaging in the physically taxing manual labor necessary to keep a subsistence farm afloat. And God is the Bigger Elvis tells a few of their stories, as well. The most compelling of these is Sister John Mary, a recovering alcoholic/advertising executive, who talks about shocking her fellow attendees at A.A. meetings by showing up in a habit.
"We're just human beings, she says. "This place doesn't solve my problems magically."
Adds Mother Noella Marcellino: "Many of us had boyfriends. But there was something else that was not meeting this call to a spouse - that was not intense enough."
And a spousal commitment is exactly what these women have made. In faded 8mm home movies, many of the sisters (including Hart in 1963, looking like the star she was) are shown taking their vows while wearing wedding gowns. The archival vibe of the footage is touching, and it's artfully edited, but the nuptial imagery (at least to this lapsed Catholic) seemed a bit disturbing. It does, however, help in understanding the intense mindset of the women who choose to live at the Abbey and devote their lives to prayer.
Ironically, the film does a far better job of explaining the calling of some of the supporting players than it does of its star. Mother Dolores, beatific though she may be, remains a bit of an enigma, frustratingly so. Part of the blame for that lies in the inscrutable nature of religious vocation, but a larger portion is attributable to the filmmakers, who have excluded key details of a complex narrative.
For reasons that are thoroughly beyond me, Cammisa and Anderson leave Francis of Assisi entirely out of this story. There is no reference to the fact that Hart undergoes an on-screen process of initiation in Curtiz's film that she would duplicate almost exactly in her own life a matter of months later. The 1961 film includes a scene of the future Saint Clare's golden tresses being shorn when she takes her vows - a process that Hart repeated when she answered her own calling. While other members of the Regina Laudis community are shown having their hair cut during their final vows, Hart is not - neither in real life, nor in the Curtiz film.
Was this detail excluded for fear that Hart's life of service to the Church might be discounted as the world's longest piece of Method Acting? Also, why did Cammisa and Alexander choose not to make reference to the fact that Pope John XXIII, upon meeting Hart at a Vatican screening of Francis of Assisi, insisted that she was not just portraying Saint Clare in the movie, but that she actually was Saint Clare, re-born? The Mother Prioress herself admits the profound influence of this on her, so why not at least mention it?
The only acknowledgment of a connection between Hart playing Clare and then emulating her life comes in tiny type in the closing credits: "Mother Prioress would like to express her gratitude to Archbishop Pietro Sambi for his awakening of Chiara/Dolores in 2010 and affirmation of her place in films."
"Chiara" is the Italian name for Saint Clare and Sambi was the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, tasked with communicating the pope's position on issues of import to the Church. It appears that, after nearly a half century of ignoring her fame, Hart chose to - or was encouraged to - exploit it in an effort to raise money for Regina Laudis, which launched a $4 million fundraising initiative in 2011.
In fact, the Mother Prioress appeared at the Chiller Theater memorabilia convention in New Jersey last Halloween, signing pictures for a fee to benefit the Abbey. The event planners must have had a sense of humor, because they positioned her autograph table only steps away from former porn star Traci Lords. I attended the event, and while I didn't meet or speak with either woman, I did take great pleasure in noting the stark contrasts between the 8x10 photographs each was selling.
But how do you make a film about Dolores Hart, and not include footage of what was essentially her first appearance as "a movie star" in more than 50 years? It strikes me as one of the great missed opportunities in documentary history. And it begs an even larger question: is this a documentary film, or is it a fundraising vehicle?
To be clear, there is no solicitation for donations in the screener I was sent. But a quick Google search brings you to the Regina Laudis webpage, where there is a prominent button for the Abbey Renovation Project, with an opportunity to make a pledge using your credit card or PayPal. I have great respect for Hart and her work - I even made a modest pledge - but I take exception to an imperfect film that was made for television being nominated for an Academy Award, particularly when it feels like a commercial.
I understand that, without the need for funds to keep her mission afloat, Hart probably would not have welcomed cameras back into her life. But to not tell the viewer about the impetus for this project feels disingenuous. And I haven't even mentioned the Vatican investigation of the Abbey in the early 1990s for "cultlike" behavior. There are just too many question marks here.
God is the Bigger Elvis is a profound story, but an imperfect and incomplete one. And, at only 36-minutes long, there's no excuse for that. Perhaps the filmmakers should have sought the provenance of a higher power in the edit room. After all, Saint Clare of Assisi is not just an inspiration to Dolores Hart, she's also the patron saint of television.
God is the Bigger Elvis premieres April 5 exclusively on HBO.