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Breaking the habit: A dozen-plus unconventional movie nuns

Clockwise from top left: Screencaps from Airplane!, Sister Act 2, Change Of Habit, Nuns On The Run. Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The women who dedicate themselves to the convent give up a lot for their lifetime of service; maybe that’s why their numbers are falling like a meteor plummeting to Earth. On the upside: Married to God. Downside: Vows of chastity, poverty, and worst of all, obedience. That trio of rules doesn’t leave much room for drama, so in the movies, the nuns that stand out most are the ones who veer significantly from the mainstream. On the 25th anniversary of Sister Act—one of the most unusual nun movies of all—we decided to take a look at some other unconventional movie sisters. Raising tigers, dating Elvis, impersonating dolphins: Some of these nuns can even make a life of the cloth look fun. Not that we’re in the market or anything.

1. Sister Act (1992)
2. Sister Act 2 (1993)

It’s not penitence that sends Deloris Wilson (Whoopi Goldberg) to a convent in the first Sister Act movie. She’s a lounge singer hiding out from her mobster boyfriend after seeing him kill someone. With some help from the police, Deloris skips the various vows of chastity and poverty to become Sister Mary Clarence, despite Mother Superior’s (a patrician Maggie Smith) misgivings. Mother Superior proves to be the only stick in the mud; the rest of the nuns share Deloris’ love of Motown, so they bond almost immediately. In addition to keeping Deloris safe, they form a great choir. For the sequel, Back In The Habit, Deloris becomes Mary Clarence once more, only this time, she’s trying to save a San Francisco parochial school and its unruly students, including Lauryn Hill and Jennifer Love Hewitt. The first movie works surprisingly well—not only is Goldberg in high form, but director Emile Ardolino works the same magic he did in Dirty Dancing, culling a humorous, affecting story from a concept that could have just been corny. But under Bill Duke’s direction, Back In The Habit is just an embarrassing retread, though it does have some great medleys. [Danette Chavez]


3. Hudson Hawk (1991)

Bruce Willis still gets weirdly defensive about Hudson Hawk, a fitfully entertaining but consistently bonkers crime caper comedy that he literally thought up. (Mr. Die Hard has a “story by” credit on the film.) It was critically panned and commercially a dud in the States, but the film is never boring, just a contender for the “people trying way too hard to be funny” crown. Willis and Danny Aiello are famed cat burglars who get blackmailed into running around Europe trying to locate valuables from clues hidden in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci (no word on whether Dan Brown saw it, thought “Hmmm,” and wrote The Da Vinci Code). Everyone in front of the camera dials the overacting up to 11, but Andie MacDowell might get the prize for weirdest role. Put as plainly as possible, her Sister Anna Baragli is a nun who works for a top-secret Vatican agency to help Willis’ Hudson capture the artifacts and also seduce him, though only in order to foil the crime in the long run. To describe it as “ridiculous” still wouldn’t do justice to the uncomfortably long scene where MacDowell’s nun impersonates a dolphin. [Alex McLevy]


4. Nuns On The Run (1990)

“Why do filmmakers so often insist that nuns are funny?” asked Roger Ebert in his review of 1990’s Nuns On The Run, still two years before Sister Act became the quintessential hiding-out-in-a-habit comedy and effectively capped one of the most strangely pervasive comedy subgenres. In Ebert’s estimation, there must be some dark psychological subtext to the audience’s desire to see a nun’s piety subverted, but the explanation for the Eric Idle/Robbie Coltrane twofer is probably much simpler: Filmmakers—and audiences, particularly British ones—often insist that men pretending to be women are funny, a trope that Idle all but invented decades before as part of Monty Python. Having him and fellow Brit comic Coltrane play gangsters who hide out from their vengeful boss in a nunnery was therefore a natural progression, allowing the two to indulge in all the broad bawdiness that dressing in drag allows, with the added naughtiness of a little light blasphemy. With all due respect to Ebert, there’s not much more to it than that. [Sean O’Neal]


5. Dark Habits (1983)

It’s strange to think now that there was a time when writer-director Pedro Almodóvar must have seemed like Spain’s answer to John Waters—a queer do-it-yourself punk with a taste for shameless kitsch, camp, and bodily fluids. In his early, irreverent black comedy Dark Habits, a drug-addicted singer (Cristina S. Pascual) takes refuge with Sister Manure, Sister Rat, and the rest at the convent of the Humiliated Redeemers, where nuns raise tigers, bake LSD-dosed desserts, and write lurid pulp novels. The first Almodóvar to be professionally produced, Dark Habits is the mother lode of monastic transgression. Reportedly, the filmmaker significantly expanded the roles of the nuns (played by a rogues’ gallery of future Almodóvar regulars, including Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Julieta Serrano, and the late Chus Lampreave) after being forced to give the lead role to the inexperienced Pascual. [Ignatiy Vishevetsky]


6. Agnes Of God (1985)

When it comes to unconventional nuns, it doesn’t get much weirder than claiming you were raped by God. That’s the conclusion reached by Meg Tilly’s Sister Agnes in Agnes Of God, the film adaptation of John Pielmeier’s stage play about a young, innocent nun who’s discovered to have given birth to a baby that’s found dead and discarded in her room, which Agnes claims was the result of immaculate conception. In her investigation into Agnes’ case, Jane Fonda’s psychiatrist character discovers that Agnes has a few other red flags—like a traumatic childhood that’s left her completely in the dark about sex (and just about everything), as well as a particularly troubling case of stigmata. Although the film never quite answers some of its larger spiritual questions—particularly that last bit—it was haunting enough to earn Oscar nominations for Tilly and Anne Bancroft as the mother superior who tries hushing them up. [Sean O’Neal]


7. Change Of Habit (1969)

By 1969, Elvis Presley was anxious to move his movie career past cookie-cutter musicals like Clambake and Speedway. But he was still under contract to Universal, which somehow convinced him that Change Of Habit would be that career-changing movie. Instead, it turned out to be his last dramatic film. Here the King is a guitar-playing doctor who’s trying to clean up the “red-hot ghetto,” aided by three incognito pre-final-vow sisters, including Mary Tyler Moore. Says Moore’s plucky Sister Michelle, their new community has to accept them “as women first, then as nuns.” Naturally, Dr. Elvis makes a play, but is rebuffed. He asks if there’s someone else, and she shrugs, “in a way.” The ambiguous ending is filmed as a cliffhanger with Sister Michelle caught in a love triangle with God and Elvis Presley, but to 1969 audiences, there’s a clear side-burned frontrunner. The two stars tried hard and have an odd yet solid chemistry, but even the gospel-inspired songs weren’t that good. Moore didn’t make another movie until her triumphant cinematic return in 1980’s Ordinary People, while Elvis’ future screen appearances were limited to what he was best at: concert footage. [Gwen Ihnat]


8. The Song Of Bernadette (1943)

Young Jennifer Jones found her way to an Oscar by portraying Bernadette, the girl who saw visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. Naturally, everyone thinks she’s crazy, even her parents, her priest, and the local nuns. Bernadette even gets arrested and has to face off against formidable prosecutor Vincent Price. Then the miracles brought on by the Lourdes’ healing waters convince her doubters that she had in fact seen the mother of God. Bernadette had little choice but to become a nun after that. Jones was among the first to discover that playing a nun was effective Oscar fodder; she won the Best Actress award in 1943, kicking off several other movie nun nominees like Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn. But a movie nun didn’t win the big prize again until 1995: Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. [Gwen Ihnat]


9. The Sound Of Music (1965)

“Maria’s not an asset to the abbey,” the nuns sing at the beginning of The Sound Of Music, in reference to the heroine (Julie Andrews). Maria is far too wild and adventurous—a bit of a flibbertigibbet—to fit among them. She’s more content to traipse around the hills than adhere to rules. So she leaves their company, at the behest of Mother Abbess, to serve as governess for the Von Trapp children. The rest you probably know, but suffice it to say, no more habit for her. Later on in the film, based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, her former sisters prove equally adept at rebellion. Not only do they help hide the family while Nazis pursue them, but they also tinker with the villains’ cars so the Von Trapps can make their getaway. Sister Margaretta and Sister Berthe, specifically, perform that exciting bit of subterfuge, telling the Mother they have sinned. Some pretty heroic sinning. [Esther Zuckerman]


10. The Singing Nun (1966)

Who better than Debbie Reynolds to portray sweet Sister Ann, the Belgian nun who somehow wrangled a hit single out of an ode to Saint Dominique? Based on a true story, Reynolds’ movie is helped out by Ann’s old flame Chad Everett (gotta get a little romance into a nun movie somewhere) and supportive priest Ricardo Montalban and Mother Superior Greer Garson. Sister Ann even winds up on The Ed Sullivan Show, as she meets other pop stars and rides her scooter around town, but what if her newfound fame leads her to reject her calling? In real life, Sister Ann was Soeur Sourire, who wrote most of the movie’s songs. Although “Dominique” became a No. 1 hit in the U.S., the sister didn’t like the fame that went along with it, leaving the order and adopting the name Luc Dominique, drawing from her single. The former nun and her partner, Annie Pecher, eventually opened a school for autistic children, but were plagued by financial troubles, as the Belgian government demanded back taxes for her music royalties, which she had donated to the convent. The two women died in a suicide pact in 1985, a much sadder ending than a Debbie Reynolds movie would ever allow. [Gwen Ihnat]


11. The Bells Of St. Mary’s (1945)

Bing Crosby returns to shake things up again as Father O’Malley in this sequel to Going My Way. His charming clergyman previously butted heads with an elderly pastor over his unconventional methods, but a new assignment finds him working at a rundown school with an order of nuns led by Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). She’s also more set in traditional ways than Father O’Malley, but this nun’s no stick in the mud. A former tomboy, Sister Mary Benedict boxes and quips, and shows just enough flexibility to help Father O’Malley turn the school around. Not to mention that Bergman and Crosby have enough chemistry to make you wish they hadn’t already committed themselves to God. Director Leo McCarey outdoes himself in this sequel to his original film, using gorgeous, long takes to establish both a sense of order and chaos. There’s an archness to Father O’Malley’s introduction to the school; although they’re all celibate, there’s no denying that Crosby is in his element surrounded by women. And yes, he obviously sings, as does Bergman. But it’s Sister Mary Benedict’s movie, thanks to Bergman’s pert yet beatific performance, and the Sister Superior’s tragic diagnosis. [Danette Chavez]


12. Airplane! (1980)

She doesn’t get a ton to do, but this enthusiastic nun definitely makes her Airplane! mark with a few key scenes. She has the guitar that enables the stewardess to sing a song to cheer up the passengers, while putting sick patent Jill Whelan in grave peril. Later, the nun gets her guitar back to perform Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” which makes people throw up. She also relaxes with an entertaining Boys’ Life magazine, while the boy across the aisle enjoys Nuns’ Life. But maybe it’s the behind-the-scenes info about that nun that’s even more interesting. The character was created to spoof the nun in Airport 1975. She’s portrayed by Maureen McGovern, appropriately enough, the songstress behind two disaster-movie soundtrack classics: The Towering Inferno’s “We May Never Love Like This Again,” and The Poseidon Adventure’s “The Morning After.” The producers originally wanted Helen Reddy, but McGovern wound up being the perfect choice, diving into that line to shake the hysterical women like a pro. [Gwen Ihnat]


13. Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970)

Clint Eastwood is still in full-on spaghetti Western mode here, even though this movie takes place in (and was shot exclusively in) Mexico. Sergio Leone didn’t direct, but his frequent composer Ennio Morricone again perfectly scores another dusty Eastwood journey. Clint plays Hogan, a familiar hired-gun loner type, who rescues Shirley MacLaine’s Sara, a nun who’s helping efforts to defend Mexico against the 1860s French intervention. MacLaine’s unconventional nun is obviously hiding something; although she frequently stops and prays at small shrines, she also steals Hogan’s cigars, drinks his whiskey, and swears when she thinks he’s not listening. Turns out, she’s a prostitute on the lam, who still drafts Hogan into her rebellion efforts. MacLaine was just coming off of her taxi dancer role in Sweet Charity to stand toe to toe with Eastwood, even getting top billing in the credits. A chastened Eastwood didn’t co-star with another award-winning actress until Meryl Streep in 1995’s The Bridges Of Madison County. [Gwen Ihnat]


14 and up: Nunsploitation (Various)

Part of the deluge of erotic energy that poured out from the newly liberated film industry in the swinging ’70s, the so-called “nunsploitation” subgenre exploited deeply held Catholic taboos to titillate audiences with tales of cloistered nuns breaking the vow of chastity in all sorts of aberrant ways. Similar in structure and content to the “women in prison” movies that were popular in American drive-ins at the time (albeit with a blasphemous edge), nunsploitation peaked in the deeply Catholic country of Italy with films like Story Of A Cloistered Nun (1973), Flavia The Heretic (1974), and Images In A Convent (1979). It also enjoyed a period of popularity in Mexico—which produced the wildly profane Alucarda (1978) and Satanico Pandemonium (1975)—as well as in, oddly enough, Japan, where filmgoers could enjoy sadomasochistic lesbian scenes in films like School Of The Holy Beast (1974) free of the fear of hell. Aside from the occasional homage in neo-grindhouse fare like Nude Nuns With Big Guns (2010), nunsploitation is largely a thing of the past, declining in tandem with both exploitation cinema and religion in general. [Katie Rife]


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