God Is The Bigger Elvis debuts tonight on HBO at 8 p.m. Eastern.
In 1963, 24-year-old Dolores Hart, a striking young Hollywood starlet who’d appeared in films with the likes of Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, and Anthony Quinn, abandoned her promising film career to join the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery in Connecticut. Becoming a cloistered nun was an unexpected turn of events for Hart, who, at just 19, had become the first woman to share an onscreen kiss with Elvis Presley in 1957’s Loving You. Now known as Mother Prioress, the former actress is in the spotlight once again as the subject of Rebecca Cammisa’s eloquent and unexpectedly moving Oscar-nominated documentary, God Is The Bigger Elvis.
The playful title is taken from Hart herself, who, in the opening minutes of the film, reflects on her calling. “The abbey was like a grace of God that just entered my life in a way that was totally unexpected. God was the vehicle. He was the bigger Elvis,” she says, a sly grin spreading across her face. The title is an apt summary of Hart’s unlikely journey from Hollywood to Regina Laudis, but, on a more profound level, it also hints at the larger mystery that Cammisa’s film explores so memorably—belief. The implicit message of God Is The Bigger Elvis would seem to be that, like the intangible yet undeniable star appeal of someone like Presley, faith isn’t something that can be easily explained.
The first time we see Hart, she is dressed in a severe habit with a fetching little beret perched atop her head. Despite the relatively flashy headgear and the warm twinkle in her blue eyes, there are few obvious traces of the glamorous ingénue who stole the King’s heart (onscreen, that is) five decades ago. So it’s a bit of a shock when Cammisa introduces us to Hart, the rising star, via a peppy montage of headshots and clips from Hart’s brief film career—including a slightly ribald scene from 1960’s Where The Boys Are. It’s hard not to wonder how—or, indeed, why—Hart would have given up so much for such an austere life.
At the suggestion of a friend, Hart, already a devout Catholic, paid her first visit to the abbey in 1959 after an exhausting run on Broadway. Though she went there simply to recuperate, Hart found the experience more profound than she had expected. “I came way with a sense of peace, a sense of interior renewal. I said I’ll come back,” she recalls. For Hart, who was by then in a relationship with a handsome young architect named Don Robinson, her sojourn at the abbey was as wonderful as it was unsettling: What if she was really meant to be a nun?
As her career flourished and she and Robinson started to plan a life together—legendary costume designer Edith Head had even started making a wedding gown—Hart couldn’t stop thinking about Regina Laudis, and eventually she broke off the relationship. It was an anguished decision for both parties, but eventually Robinson remained a devoted friend, visiting Hart regularly for 47 years (in a sad coda, he died late last year). In the most moving moments of the film, Robinson, who never married, explains his abiding devotion to Hart. “I never found the love like Dolores. It’s now a way of life that she’s in the abbey, and I love her,” he says over footage of the two old friends walking hand in hand. If that’s not enough to reduce you to tears, then I don’t know what would be.
Cammisa also introduces us to several other women who live at Regina Laudis who, like Hart, seem to defy the stern, sexless image of holy women. There’s Sister John Mary, a striking blonde and recovering alcoholic who left behind a career in politics—and a closet full of leopard-print coats and hot pink shift dresses, apparently—to become a nun. There’s also Mother Lucia Kuppens, who joined as a young women in the heady days of 1970s because she “wanted to work for peace…to give more to the planet than I was taking.” In a lovely touch, Cammisa makes liberal use of home-movie footage of the entrance ceremonies of several of the women at Regina Laudis. The rituals, in which the women leave behind their secular clothes and cut off their hair, are a spectacle in their own right—their own star-making moments, if you will. To its considerable credit, the film focuses on what it means to live a contemplative life, rather than the curiosity factor of Hart’s once-glamorous career.
The one slightly frustrating thing about God Is The Bigger Elvis is its awkward, in-between length. At 37 minutes, it’s more in-depth than, say, a news magazine profile, but it isn’t quite long enough to do justice to the weighty subject matter. We also get tantalizingly few details about Hart’s life story. For instance, though we learn that her parents were only teenagers when she was born, and that they later divorced, it’s not really clear why Hart describes her early life “as probably the most unstable factor in the world.” And while Hart tells us about the difficulties of her early years in the abbey—as a former actress, she was considered a “lightweight”—it would have been useful to hear more about the struggle of adjusting to the cloistered life. But, then again, the scant running time could also be considered a strength: Why try explaining the inexplicable?