Tuesday, February 14, 2012

From: USATODAY.com

If you spot a nun roaming the red carpet during the Oscar telecast Feb. 26, don't adjust your set.

Mother Dolores is not flying or singing, but the real deal — and the focus of God Is the Bigger Elvis, which is nominated in the best documentary short category and premieres April 5 on HBO

"It will be so nice to be back at the Oscars," says Mother Dolores, 73, the Benedictine nun who stars in the 37-minute visit to the Abbey of Regina Laudis, appropriately located in Bethlehem, Conn. "It's such a fun night."

Did she say back to the Oscars?

"The last time I was there was in 1959, when I was a presenter," says Mother Dolores, who is spiritual counselor to 38 other cloistered sisters. "This will be different".

Different defines the life of a young woman named Dolores Hart. Rewind to 1963. Hart is a wholesome 25-year-old starlet whose leading men have included Elvis Presley (Loving You, 1957), Montgomery Clift (Lonelyhearts, 1958) and George Hamilton (Where the Boys Are, 1960). She is about to sign a seven-figure contract with producer Hal Wallis. She is happily engaged to Los Angeles businessman Don Robinson.
And she walks away from it all to head behind the walls of Regina Laudis.

Crazy? No, just quietly confident.

"I adored Hollywood. I didn't leave because it was a place of sin," she says in a measured but upbeat tone that animates God Is the Bigger Elvis (a title taken from her simple explanation for her defection from the high life).

"I left Hollywood at the urging of a mysterious thing called vocation. It's a call that comes from another place that we call God because we don't have any other way to say it. It's a call of love. Why do you climb a mountain?"

What makes the documentary unique is that Regina Laudis is a profoundly private place. Visitors must remain outside the compound. Daily life is laced with prayer, song and a lot of hard work tending to gardens, livestock and crumbling infrastructure for which the sisters are trying to raise money through the New Horizons Renovation Project (abbeyofreginalaudis.com).

Mother Dolores says she allowed access to cameras not to help with fundraising but rather to assist with soul searching.

"We wanted to invite the world into another order of life that might give some hope," she says. 

God director Rebecca Cammisa felt an instant connection to the topic when project partner Julie Anderson raised the idea. Cammisa's mother was a nun for 10 years before changing course. 

"The question I had was, what makes someone with Dolores Hart's level of success choose this way of life?" says Cammisa, a 2010 Oscar nominee for her documentary about Mexican migrant children, Which Way Home.

"It's a countercultural choice, but this film will show people that these are highly educated, attractive women who had boyfriends and lovers but were living in a world that didn't have enough for them," she says.

Cammisa makes that point through interviews with Sister John Mary, 44, who in her pre-Regina Laudis life as Laura Adshead was a striking, Oxford-educated advertising executive whose New York lifestyle proved empty. Her addictions led her to Alcoholics Anonymous, and eventually the abbey.

"It was a hard decision to discuss A.A. in the film, but beyond the support of the community here, I also felt that maybe if I told my story, someone could identify with it and draw courage from it," she says. 

Sister John Mary adds that "everyone has a story before we came here. Our lives carry on. I'm sure Mother Prioress (Mother Dolores' title at the abbey) took Hollywood with her in her heart."

She took more than that. Robinson, Hart's fiancé, was crushed by her decision to join the abbey. He never married, and he visited Mother Dolores every year until his death in December. One of the film's most touching moments shows the former couple saying goodbye after a visit last May. It would be the last time they would see each other.

"Oh, Don, he was such a champ…" The nun's voice trails off momentarily. Then it brightens. "He's with God now. So he'd better do something good for our filmmakers."

Actually, Mother Dolores has a measure of influence on this year's nominees: As a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she receives DVDs of nominated movies and sometimes entertains at the abbey.

She vows silence on which films will get her votes, but she says she and her sisters enjoyed The Help a great deal; ditto Meryl Streep's performance in The Iron Lady and Brad Pitt's in Moneyball.

"I find the trends funny, though, because now we're back to silent films," she says, referring to Oscar nominee The Artist. "Maybe movies from the '60s will be hip again, who knows?"

Does she ever screen her romps with Elvis, Montgomery and George?

"Not much anymore. That thrill is gone," she says. "I know what I have here is the best thing I will ever have."

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