Dolores Hart: Oscar-Voting Nun

A new documentary tells the remarkable story of the movie star who gave up fame to become a cloistered Catholic Sister

by Susan Toepfer • More Features Editor/Entertainment
dolores hart elvis image
Dolores Hart & Elvis Presley in "Loving You" (1957)
Photograph: Everett Collection/HBO

“I enjoyed all your movies. What are you doing now?” a young boy writes to the screen idol. Reading his letter, Dolores Hart can only laugh. Because in one of the most curious career detours ever, in 1963 this vibrant blond actress abandoned Hollywood for a Connecticut monastery.

Cloistered there ever since, Mother Prioress Dolores, now 73, speaks frankly and amusingly about her stunning choice in the Oscar-nominated documentary short, God is the Bigger Elvis (set to air on HBO beginning April 5).

The title succinctly explains her decision: Hart, after all, made her film debut opposite Presley in Loving You (1957). She would go on to make nine more movies, reteaming with Elvis in King Creole (1958) and resisting the sexual temptations of a Ft. Lauderdale spring break in Where the Boys Are (1960). Prophetically, she also played Sister Clare to Bradford Dillman’s Brother Francis in St. Francis of Assisi (1961).

At the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a working farm and home to 36 nuns, Mother Dolores observes three periods of silence a day and counsels those who seek her help. “People come to speak to us about every possible form of suffering that hits the human heart,” she says. “My role is to help a person discover you can always find hope and if you can find hope you might find faith.”

The documentary makes it clear that Hart’s decision was not as random as it once appeared: She started visiting the Abbey while starring on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company when she was advised by a friend that she could get some much-needed rest in the company of “easy-going nuns.” Indeed, they were so easy-going that when she worried about being sexually attracted to her costars, one piped up: “Well, why not? You’re a girl.”

After five years of dating, Hart was engaged to Don Robinson, and Edith Head had already designed her wedding dress when she decided to become a bride of Christ instead. Some of the more poignant moments in the film are the interviews with Robinson, who has visited her at the monastery for 47 years. (The two walk around the grounds holding hands and chastely kiss goodbye.)

There are other signs that Mother Dolores hasn’t completely abandoned her former life: A copy of The Hollywood Reporter rests on her desk and the film informs us that she is the only nun to be an Oscar-voting Academy member.

Let’s hope she votes for her own documentary to win.

To read about another mid-century dazzler, click on our interview with Rita Moreno.

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First Published February 15, 2012

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