Friday, November 28

Count 10 and Pray

Dolores Hart was a young actress in the late 1950s, most famous for playing the love interest of Elvis Presley in two films, and shortly after her 10th film was released in 1963, she joined an abbey in anticipation of her monastic life as a nun.  For many years I lost track of her until just a couple of years ago when a documentary on HBO brought her back into the public consciousness... or at least mine.

She was born Dolores Hicks, of Irish and Italian descent, in 1938 Chicago.  Her father, who was related to singer Mario Lanza, was a bit actor so acting was in her blood.  She became fully aware of movies when an uncle, a theater projectionist, looked after her frequently on his job.  She determined then and there to one day become an actress and often prayed that it would come true.

When the family moved to Los Angeles, she knew she was getting closer to her dream.  She learned a bit about moviemaking when she would join her father on his film sets.  While attending Marymount College she came to the attention of producer Hal Wallis who signed her to play the girlfriend of Elvis Presley in Loving You (1957). She was on her way.

The press made much of their friendship, often intimating that they were, well, very close (something she has always denied).  It escalated the following year when the duo was signed to costar in King Creole, Hart's fourth film.  Both films were very popular and Hart became instantly recognized by the teenaged crowd.

After King Creole, the actress took to the Broadway stage in The Pleasure of His Company, opposite George Peppard, and would receive a Tony nomination.  Unfortunately for Hart, Debbie Reynolds would assume the part in the film.

In between the Presley movies, she made two more that, while not very popular with the public, certainly scored with me.  The first was playing Anthony Quinn's daughter in Wild Is the Wind.  On a Nevada ranch Quinn relocates a woman from Italy, Anna Magnani, and marries her but when he ignores her, she takes up with a ranch hand, Anthony Franciosa.  George Cukor directed a talented cast.

Next Hart played Montgomery Clift's patient girlfriend (a type of role that was already her standard) in Lonelyhearts, a hard look at newspaper reporting with excellent performances from Robert Ryan, Myrna Loy and Maureen Stapleton.  Frankly, Hart was underused in this role and not part of the main story.

By this time she had acquired a boyfriend and later fiancĂ©, architect Don Robinson.  More on him in a bit.  While Hart loved making movies, she had become disenchanted with Hollywood.  I had been around Hollywood for awhile, she would say, and I could see how needlessly competitive and negative it could be.  It never held my interest

With George Hamilton in WTBA

The year 1960 brought her one of her three worst movies and another, one of her most famous.  The first was The Plunderers, a run-of-the-mill Jeff Chandler western... a total waste of time.  The second was Where the Boys Are, which I have mentioned recently in my postings on Yvette Mimieux and my dual piece on Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton.  The lightweight story about gazillions of horny students flocking to Fort Lauderdale during Easter vacation practically reached cult status.  Costar Connie Francis' title tune didn't hurt.  Hart had the lead as Merritt Andrews, a young woman dealing with her confusing signals over pre-marital sex.

It was likely much the same for her in real life.  Catholicism was as important to her as anything in life and she wanted to honor the tenets of the church.  Hollywood, of course, a country cousin to Sodom and Gomorrah, must have told the young actress that she was in way over her head.  Around this time she would visit a monastery in Connecticut, an insight of things to come.

Her eyes were opened even more to her religion when in 1961 she traveled to Italy to make Fox's St. Francis of Assisi with Bradford Dillman.  She played Clare, a woman who gives up everything to become a nun.  Hart was thrilled to have a meeting with Pope John XXIII.  Things were falling into place.  Seven films down, three to go.

First up was her second forgettable film, Sail a Crooked Ship, a lame comedy about a burglar who steals a mothballed ship in New York to use in a Boston robbery.  Are you saying huh?  Well, so did everyone else.

Hart had the title role in Lisa (1962), a decent post-WWII story in which she played a Jew who wants to return to her homeland, Palestine, but must be smuggled in.  It didn't hurt that Stephen Boyd was her costar.

The old worn plot of three women looking for husbands was hauled out again to make 1963s Come Fly with Me.  Hart, Pamela Tiffin and Lois Nettleton were stewardesses in this nauseating romance-comedy.  It was released in March and by June she was part of the abbey at Regina Laudis, an enclosed Benedictine convent and working farm in Bethlehem, Connecticut.  Fifty-one years later, she is still there, known as Mother Prioress.

As a fan, I was shocked.  This hadn't happened since singer-actress June Haver did the same thing a decade earlier, but it hadn't lasted and she returned to her earlier life and married actor Fred MacMurray.  Perhaps I made more sense of it when I realized how chaste her film roles had always been and how she never got caught up in the Tinseltown dating maze.

FiancĂ© Don Robinson, also a Catholic, of course, was shocked but learned to accept her decision.  The interesting part is that they continued to see one another two or three times a year at the monastery, taking walks while holding hands, every year, until he died a couple of years ago.

Also two years ago Mother Dolores allowed cameras in the abbey to film an HBO documentary on her life called God Is The Bigger Elvis.  I can't say I care much for that title but the documentary was endearing and informative.  Last year she also wrote an autobiograpphy, The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows.

Notable 60s Film

1 comment:

  1. I never knew who Dolores Hart was until I saw "Bigger Elvis". This kind of background info is interesting. Thanks! Sarah