Love Me Tender: Mother Dolores Hart on Elvis, her Big Bang Theory of Sexuality, and her Oscar-nominated short ‘God Is the Bigger Elvis’

Look up Dolores Hart on IMDB -- and prepare to be wowed. Hart, a Hollywood brat discovered while attending Marymount College, starred opposite Elvis in "Loving You" (1957). George Cukor directed her and Anna Magnani in "Wild is the Wind" (1957). The future prioress starred in the cult favorite "Where the Boys Are" (1960) -- and even played a nun in Michael Curtiz's "Francis of Assisi" (1961). And then, in 1963, at age 24 on the verge of marriage and following the premiere of her final feature, "Come Fly With Me," this leading lady who had been compared to Grace Kelly and kissed "the King" on screen, entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut.

Yes, the Hollywood star gave up the spotlight for God. According to the Oscar-nominated documentary short, "God is the Bigger Elvis," Hart discovered an inner peace and contentment in the cloister that had been absent on stage and screen, and in her engagement to California businessman Don Robinson. Hart has confessed it's tough explaining the change in vocation, but has described it as: "Falling in love. One falls in love with the Lord." Now, the feisty 73-year-old Prioress, Mother Dolores Hart, will not only attend the Oscars this weekend, she voted for them. She's the only nun currently a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Thelma Adams: Why did you agree to make "God Is the Bigger Elvis" for HBO?

Mother Dolores Hart: About two years ago I was taken to Washington, D.C., by a friend of mine for another reason and there I met the now-deceased Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the delegate of the Holy See. When I walked into the office, he stretched out his arms to me and said "Mother Dolores, we would like to make a film on consecrated life." But Your Excellency, I don't have any contacts, I said. I'm no longer a part of the motion picture industry, and I am an enclosed nun. And he said "The Lord will provide." I said I'm sorry, I can't do it. He said, "Pray about this. I'm sure something will happen because the world needs to know about enclosed life." He said, "They really don't know about consecrated life." And we talked for at least two hours, and he showed me his home, and took me to see all the beautiful art pieces that he had, and walked me to my car, which has never happened to me before. I told this to the abbey, and the abbess, and two days later HBO called me -- and neither one had been in touch with the other. We were floored. It was obviously somebody upstairs.

TA: And you don't mean Jeffrey Katzenberg.

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[laughs] Only the Lord! Obviously, we have to do it. We had never opened the doors of the abbey to this sort of interview, not since we were founded in 1946.

TA: Had any filmmakers ever contacted you personally since you joined the cloister in 1963?

MDH: Of course, but I always had to say no. It wasn't possible. Here was a new precedent, and there was a new reason. The request had come from…it was a request that we couldn't deny

TA: It sounds like "The Godfather."

MDH: So, yes, we said we could do it, and we've never regretted it. HBO could not have been more reverent, centered, and gentle and more really focused in what they were doing. I think they were more frightened than we were. I think Sheila Nevins prepared her group with all of the elegance and creativity of a mother superior.

TA: What did you want to achieve? What did you want people to know?

MDH: We wanted them to take away the truth as they could perceive it. We hoped that they would, by coming into the reality of an experience, find themselves connected to something that would make sense to them. We didn't set up an idea ahead of time. That would deny the Holy Spirit his opportunity to teach them, for them to experience what was for them to experience. We wanted to be there as the conduit, because I believe that every good teacher is meant to be the open book so that those who come in can find what they must learn to help them to know what is true.

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TA: One of the fascinating aspects of cloistered life the movie reveals is that sexuality doesn't end at the cloister doors -- but perhaps our notion of it does. One nun discusses her union with others when singing, for example….

MDH: One of the key factors is that in all generations, in every generation, ever since Rome, sexuality has always been understood in one dimension, and that's always been carnality of the experience of the male and female exploitation of one another. That's always the limitation of sexuality, but I think that anyone who really knows what love is, you know that sexuality has the fullness of the human experience of love -- that's not limited to one or two bangs in bed. That's not what it means. And, if it does, I think the human beings are really lost and caught in a terrible network of limitation and psychological doom, because what is our life worth?

Anyone who has ever had a true marriage knows that your sexuality has to go far beyond and into a meaningfulness that allows for a total life experience that covers every aspect, in which one's sexuality covers the total experience of one's being in a love relationship. Now what I'm speaking of, as I know and understand the world of matrimonial sex, but then you take that even beyond those experiences of a marriage -- there is another dimension of marriage and that's the marriage that lives within the corporate level, in which those relationships that we know, and we treasure in our bonds of deep relationships beyond the one-on-one of marriage. And all of us, if we are honest in our heart, we know that we have many of those and we demand in our hearts a fruition of those relationships.

TA: We often hear people complaining that contemporary life moves too fast. "God Is the Bigger Elvis" conveys that speed is a choice.

MDH: It's a choice, and even as I saw every film that was nominated in my category, I thought to myself every film deserves to win because every film brings forth a cry for an honest experience of sexuality.

TA: It's a rich category: "Incident in New Baghdad," "Saving Face," "The Barber of Birmingham," and "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom."

MDH: That was what amazed me, because each one demanded an honest sexual response in people, in the person, in the network of relationships, in Iraq, in Baghdad. Each one said, "Will there be a true experience?" When they're throwing acid in the face of your spouse, that was horrendous, that drives you to say that, yes, there must be an honest sexuality demanded. And I said to myself when I left the theater, "This is why I came into this whole situation," because we must pray for each one of these situations. Each one deserves the fullness of prayer to be answered. This is why we're here, because we must pray for these persons to be given the gold.

TA: OK, Mother Dolores, given your film's title, I have to ask: What was Elvis really like?

MDH: He was the gold, in that day and age. It was amazing, an unbelievable gift to me as a 19-year-old. The gift was an opportunity. Of course, I didn't know what I had been given. I didn't know who he was. I loved movies, I didn't know anything about songs or singing, so I went to meet him…

TA: To audition for the part as his love interest in "Loving You"…

MDH: I went back to Marymount College and said I was working with Elvis Presley, and the girls screamed and asked if I'd taken a lock of his hair. They said, "You are crazy. Don't you understand?" And I said "no."

I really didn't because I was not following rock and roll. When I met Elvis, I met a very sweet and very courteous young man who jumped to his feet and said 'Hello," and "How do you do, Miss Dolores?" I was very touched by his courtesy and honesty, and I thought immediately I would like this fellow. But I was not impressed by a famous rock and roll singer who was just on Ed Sullivan, or as one of my sisters here said, "Al Sullivan."

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TA: What co-star made the biggest impression on you?

MDH: I think Anna Magnani.

TA: Why?

DH (pausing to think for a few beats): In one afternoon, I think she taught me how to be an actress. We had a wonderful scene in "Wild Is the Wind," a scene under a tree. It took us from 2 in the afternoon to 8 at night to do that scene. She didn't want me in the film to begin with -- she accepted me, she tolerated me. She couldn't believe this white, blue-eyed actress was going to come up with anything, but she yanked me through it, roughed-and-tumbled me through this scene. Before we started the morning, she said to George Cukor, and he said, "She will learn the scene in Italian by 2 o'clock." We absolutely plowed through that scene.

Well, flash forward about three years; I was in a studio acting class and Jeff Corey was working me out. I was now bleached blond for the part, like Grace Kelly, and he said, "You are not working well in this scene. Go down the street. There is this foreign film with Anna Magnani, and I'd like you to look at it because she's working there with a young girl and she is terrific, and you can learn more about yourself, and you can learn more about acting." I said, "Jeff, that was me three years ago." I'm going to quit acting classes, and I'm going to learn what I learned from Anna and go back to my instincts. To study acting was the worst possible thing I could have done. The best thing to stay with what she taught me was to follow what was in your heart and what your instincts tell you. That is what she was doing and she was great.

You followed your heart right into the cloister.

DH: And that was about it. Thank you, Anna. You're right on track.