Pete Hammond

Until this year Dolores Hart had not made a movie since the fluffy 1963 romance Come Fly With Me when she was just a 23-year-old actress on the rise in HollywoodShe left a NYC press event for that MGM film and got a limo to drop her off at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She never left and is now known as its Mother Prioress, living a cloistered spiritual life behind those walls for 48 years. It’s a remarkable story and it is one that director Rebecca Cammisa and producer Julie Anderson recognized immediately, leading to the first film Mother Dolores has made since her 1963 show business exit. It’s called God Is The Bigger Elvis which will air on HBO April 5 and has been nominated for the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar. Mother Dolores is flying to Hollywood to attend the Oscars for the first time in over half a century, and certainly the first time as a nun.

Often dubbed “the nun who kissed Elvis”  Mother Dolores co-starred with Presley in 1957′s Loving You and  1958′s King Creole. She also appeared in films like Where The Boys Are, Lonelyhearts, Francis Of Assisi and others in her short but successful movie career. Before radically changing her life she was set to sign a million-dollar contract with producer Hal Wallis and her next two film co-starring roles were scheduled to be opposite Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando. But she walked away and has no regrets. Still she never completely severed her ties with the business and has kept in touch with old friends and co-stars over the years. She’s also the only nun who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, watches the for-your-consideraton DVD screeners sent to her and votes every year. For Cammisa, whose mother was a nun for 10 years and who made the feature-length documentary Sister Helen in 2002,  doing this film was still an eye-opening experience.

“She was very willing and open. There was no topic that was off limits for us. She was very open about talking about her past. It’s a short film but we have so many other interviews about her past life, past boyfriends, what Hollywood was like at that time, what her leading stars were like. She said to me, ‘ask me anything you want’. She was not afraid of anything,”  Cammisa said.

Although the film is a biographical look at Mother Dolores, it also focuses on the other nuns at the Abbey, inquiring why they chose this sometimes very tough life. “I think in this day and age making the decision to join a religious order is a counter-cultural decision. These are people who want something completely different out of life. Here you have a young woman who at age 23 had it all. Her next two leading men were Beatty and Brando. But at 23 she left. She also had a fiancee. She decided that world wasn’t for her. That was pretty amazing. She was a young actress on the precipice of an even bigger career,”  Cammisa said.

That fiancee, Don Robinson, became a lifelong friend and their touching relationship is perhaps the highlight of the 36-minute  film. He offers great insights into the Dolores Hart he knew then and the devoted Mother Prioress of today. In fact he never did marry and visited her at the Abbey every year. It was the filmmakers’ luck that their last weekend of shooting was during one of those visits. Sadly it turned out to be the last time Mother Dolores would see him. He died in December.

As for the title, it came from Mother Dolores herself as she gave her explanation for this major life style change to Cammisa. “God is the bigger Elvis,”  she says. And that says it all.

Cammisa says Mother Dolores is very excited to be hitting the Oscar red carpet again (she last attended as a presenter on April 4, 1960 with John Saxon as her date). When the documentary received an Academy nomination (unlike any other movie she made during her film career)  the director called to give her the news. “I love the question she threw at me. ‘What does this mean’?”

Only God and maybe accountants from PriceWaterhouseCoopers will know for sure until that envelope is opened, appropriately on a Sunday.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.