“The first night I felt like I had jumped off a 20 story building and landed flat on my butt.” That’s Mother Prioress Dolores Hart, describing her first night in the Regina Laudis Abbey, after taking her vows as a novice in the Benedictine order. Hart had it all: an exploding Hollywood career, a contract with famed American film producer Hal Wallis, and a handsome fiancé. She appeared in 10 movies. Often compared to Grace Kelly, with the same willowy blonde beauty, she, too, ended up walking away from her Hollywood life in 1963, to enter a convent. She has lived in an abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut, a cloistered monastery, the only one of its kind in the United States, for 48 years. Her journey is the subject of God Is the Bigger Elvis, a new Oscar-nominated HBO documentary, which aired last night. Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, it is a moving and intimate portrait, not only of the contemplative monastic life, a world we rarely get access to, but of the personal journey of one woman who seemingly had it all but gave it up to find something higher and deeper.
The documentary is made up of current interviews with Dolores Hart and the other nuns and novices in the Abbey, as well as clips from old home movies of the Abbey’s history. We see grainy footage of nuns working in the garden, herding cows, riding in the back of a pickup truck waving to the camera. Any preconceived notion you may have had that nuns are stiff and uptight will be completely shot to pieces when you watch this beautiful documentary. The nuns speak openly about their pasts and their own doubts. They say that living a monastic life requires a constant renewal of their vows. Submitting to the rigors of communal life and the order is not easy for many of them.
Born to teenage parents, Dolores Hart felt called to be an actress. She speaks now of the series of “strokes of good luck” that came her way early on in her career, which eventually put her in the position of auditioning to be Elvis Presley’s co-star in Loving You (1957). It was his second movie, and it would be her debut. Even after so many years, Hart still seems awe-struck that she got that role. Hart says, “I often wonder why the Lord gave me such an opportunity to audition for Elvis. There were so many of us in line that day. And I just can’t believe that I got the part.” When asked if she had prayed that she would get the part, you can still see the hunger and ambition of a young actress in Hart’s response, “Did I pray to get the part in Loving You? You bet your sweet I did! Every role I got I prayed for.”
She appeared again opposite Elvis, in King Creole (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, a wonderful film featuring one of Elvis’ best performances. In King Creole, Hart plays Nellie, the five-and-dime cashier romanced by a tough bruiser, Danny Fisher (Presley). God Is the Bigger Elvis opens with a clip from King Creole, showing Elvis as Danny singing in a New Orleans nightclub, with a beaming, teary-eyed Dolores Hart watching from the audience. She was an intense and natural actress with a deep capacity for emotion, and she enjoyed her career.
In 1959, Elvis Presley sent Hart a postcard from Germany, where he was stationed with the 3rd Armored Division. His greeting to her was, “How are you, hot lips?” Hart told the drooling press at the time that no, they were not in love, he called her that because she had the honor of giving him his first onscreen kiss in Loving You, thereby making her the envy of swooning girls worldwide. Hart has described how nervous the two of them were filming that kissing scene. They both blushed so painfully that the makeup department was forced to do some damage-control. She was a devout Catholic and went to Mass every day at 6 A.M.. before heading to the studio. In a 2002 interview, she said that she felt fortunate to get to know Elvis when she did, that he had “an innocence” to him that was very touching. There are home movies of the two of them at her house, he playing the piano, she jamming out on a clarinet, both of them laughing and free.
In 1958 and 1959, Hart was appearing on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company and struggling with fatigue. A friend suggested Hart take a weekend retreat at an abbey in Connecticut, to get some rest. Hart was so taken with the life that she saw there amongst the nuns that she had a hard time getting it out of her mind, although she did return to her burgeoning career. She began dating a Los Angeles architect, Don Robinson. They ended up seeing one another for five years, before getting engaged. Preparations for the wedding proceeded at breakneck speed. The invitations were sent out. The legendary Edith Head designed Hart’s wedding dress. But Don Robinson, who is interviewed in the documentary, could tell that something was wrong.
Hart finally came clean and told him that she wanted to join the Abbey. Robinson says, “I said to her, ‘Dolores, are you telling me that you’re going to become a nun?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I am.’ I totally collapsed. I felt, in Catholicism, when you give yourself to a person – that’s a contract commitment. Then an outside force comes in and breaks it up. Every part of my love for her was destroyed in a matter of seconds.”
Robinson never married. And every Christmas and Easter, for 47 years, until his death last November, he would travel to the Abbey in Connecticut, to attend Mass and spend time with Dolores. We see them walking hand in hand on the abbey grounds, talking quietly. Robinson says baldly, “I never got over Dolores. I have the same thoughts today that I had 52 years ago. I love her. I’ve come to the abbey for 47 years. I think that says something.”
The access Camissa was given is extraordinary. The nuns accept the presence of the camera. We see them at prayer, we see them observing the three periods of silence each day. The abbey itself is beautiful, with wooden walls and rounded doors. The nuns stomp around in work boots and work gloves, herding sheep, driving tractors. Dolores Hart always wears a jaunty beret placed on top of her habit, with three gleaming bird pins on the side. Her cluttered office is filled with chirping birds in cages. She plays music for one temperamental parrot named Toby, and smiles widely when he starts bouncing up and down to the beat. She counsels pained people who come to her, and she listens to the novices who express to her their struggles. In the clip of King Creole that opens the film, Hart’s listening is so intense that it seems her heart is on the outside of her skin, which was one of her gifts as an actress. That listening power is still with her. You can see it in every moment she is interacting with someone else. Even her parrot gets her full attention.
She still gets fan mail. She goes through some of it in her office, showing the publicity photos for Loving You, with Hart and Presley looking at the camera cheek to cheek. She reads one of the letters out loud: “I enjoyed watching you and Elvis. He was such a sweet personable young man. I loved you in Loving You and Where the Boys Are. You were my favorite actress. What are you doing now?” At that last question, Hart stops, looks at the camera, in her full habit, and bursts into a hearty laugh.
In her early visits to the Abbey, she had expressed concerns to the Mother Superior about her career. “The concern that I had was that it was wrong as a Catholic to be in the movies because sexually – you could be aroused by boys, and you could get involved sexually with men. And my leading man was Elvis. She said, ‘Well, why not? You’re a girl. Chastity doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate what God created. Chastity says use it well.'”
In one of the most emotional moments of the film, she and her old fiancé, Don Robinson, say goodbye. They have spent the afternoon together, talking. They embrace goodbye. He tells her he thinks about her all the time, that he loves her. She tells him she loves him, too. He holds onto her hand, and doesn’t want to let go. But finally, with his halting elderly step, he walks away. Hart watches him go and suddenly, out of nowhere, her eyes well up with tears. A lifetime of emotion is in that look: what she gave up, what she passed on, the sacrifice she made to choose the life she chose. It is a breathtaking moment.
Early in the documentary, Hart says, with a mischievous smile, “I never felt I was leaving Hollywood… The Abbey was like a grace of God that entered my life that was totally unexpected. God was the vehicle. He was the bigger Elvis.”