The King and I: Star-Turned-Nun Tells All in 'God is the Bigger Elvis'

Elvis Presley, Dolores Hart in
Elvis Presley, Dolores Hart in "Loving You"/Photo: Everett Collection/courtesy of HBO

One of the most interesting stories at this year’s Oscar ceremony didn’t concern Angelina’s leg or Uggie the dog, but rather the unexpected sight of a nun on the red carpet and in the audience. Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that this particular woman had attended the event several times before — the last in 1962 — under very different circumstances.

HBO's latest captivating documentary, “God is the Bigger Elvis,” covers the life of Dolores Hart, an actress who walked away from the industry to take her vows at the age of twenty-three. Directed by Rebecca Cammisa (herself the daughter of a former nun), the thirty-seven-minute film explores Hart’s brief acting career and her life at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. Now seventy-three and a Prioress, she retains her connections to Hollywood, from famous friends to Academy voting membership. (Unsurprisingly, she’s the only nun.) As she told The New York Times, Cammisa saw this year’s Oscar ceremony as Mother Dolores’ “coming home as a Hollywood legacy.”

In just ten films, Dolores Hart established that legacy, working with some of cinema’s most notable individuals, none more famous than Elvis Presley, her co-star in “Loving You” (her first picture) and “King Creole.” (Charmingly, she recalls that their first screen kiss caused them both to blush at every take.) By 1959, her career had taken off with steady film work and a Tony nomination, but, feeling burned out, she visited the Connecticut abbey on a recommendation. Though she returned to acting, Hart followed her calling in 1963, leaving Hollywood and ending an engagement to an architect (who poignantly remained unmarried and a lifelong friend). Despite initially struggling with cloistered life, Hart never regretted her decision, finding her vocation as fulfilling and rich as performing.

Of Hart’s ten pictures, eight were adaptations. Here are a few of her most notable:

“Wild is the Wind” (1957)
Based on the novel Furia, George Cukor’s film stars Anthony Quinn as a widowed sheep farmer who marries sister-in-law Anna Magnani, who, in turn, falls for a ranch hand. A departure from Cukor’s stylish oeuvre, the drama features sweeping shots of the Nevada landscape and naturalistic moments such as the birth of a lamb. In a small role as the daughter Angie, Hart has little to do, but offers an innocent contrast to Magnani’s earthy Giola.

“Lonelyhearts” (1958)
In this version of Nathanael West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, Montgomery Clift plays aspiring reporter Adam White, hired by an embittered editor to write the paper’s popular advice column. Burdened by the problems he encounters, Adam sinks into alcoholism. Hart plays Clift’s determined girlfriend Justy, a supporting role that earned her a name above the title alongside Clift, Robert Ryan, and Myrna Loy.

“King Creole” (1958)
Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”), this New Orleans-set picture loosely adapts A Stone for Danny Fisher. In his favorite role, Elvis Presley stars as a teenage ne’er-do-well pulled between Walter Matthau’s criminal world and nightclub singing, surprising critics with his deft handling of a complex part. Hart again plays his love interest, the nice girl to Carolyn Jones’ troubled gangster moll.

“Where the Boys Are” (1960)
The story of four Midwest college girls seeking sun and romance in Florida, this adaptation of a popular novel is possibly the first spring break movie. Leading a young ensemble cast, Hart shines as the outspoken, progressive Merritt Andrews, romanced by an ironically pre-tan George Hamilton. Despite some tragedy, the movie is a fun satire of spring break and features a great jazz soundtrack and famous theme song by co-star Connie Francis.

“Francis of Assisi” (1961)
Curtiz again directed Hart in an adaptation of The Joyful Beggar, with Bradford Dillman as Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant who forms a religious order after hearing the voice of God. Hart plays Francis’ childhood friend Clare, an aristocrat so inspired by his teachings that she renounces her privileged life to become a nun. During the production in Rome, Hart met Pope John XXIII, who prophetically told her that she was Clare.