Two of this year’s eight best picture Academy Award nominees, “Spotlight” and “Brooklyn,” present dramatically different depictions of Catholic clergy — although neither gives a clerical character more than a few minutes of screen time.
“Spotlight” paints a sickening picture of clerical predators protected from prosecution and shuffled from parish to parish by a scandal-averse hierarchy, led by Len Cariou’s Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Brooklyn,” on the other hand, gives a small but pivotal role to Jim Broadbent as an Irish priest named Father Flood who helps the protagonist (Saoirse Ronan in an Oscar-nominated performance) relocate from a small town in Ireland to the Big Apple and puts her on the path to a better life.
“Spotlight” opens with a prologue in which a bishop, smooth-talking a reeling family after the brief arrest of a priest, reminds the mother “what good work the Church does in the community.” “Brooklyn” actually shows the Church doing that good work, aiding people in practical ways and serving as a focal point for community life.
For much of Hollywood history, screen priests and religious were all more or less like Father Flood: decent, benevolent, community-minded. At the height of the Golden Age, priests and religious became Hollywood’s default icons of religious faith — so much so that some wag once described Golden Age Hollywood as “a Jewish-owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America.”
The ascendancy of Hollywood Catholicism took a leap forward in 1938, in which a pair of popular, Oscar-nominated films, “Boys Town” and “Angels With Dirty Faces,” depicted socially conscious priests working with disadvantaged young boys, attempting to divert them from lives of crime or homelessness.
“Boys Town” was nominated in multiple categories, including best picture and director, and Spencer Tracy won the second of his two back-to-back best actor Oscars as the real-life Boys Town founder Monsignor Edward J. Flanagan, who in 2012 was declared a Servant of God, the first stage on the road to canonized sainthood. Co-star Mickey Rooney shared a special juvenile Oscar for his role as a cocky young hoodlum named Whitey Marsh.
At the Academy Awards ceremony, Tracy spent most of his acceptance speech praising the real Father Flanagan, leading to a popular myth that Tracy actually donated his statuette to the priest — a story with its origins in an announcement from an overeager MGM publicist. (Tracy did not take this suggestion kindly, snapping, “I earned the damn thing. I want it.” The Academy hastily had a second trophy made for Father Flanagan, which is on display at the Boys Town Hall of History museum.)
Michael Curtiz received a best director nomination for “Angels With Dirty Faces,” starring Pat O’Brien as an earnest, savvy young priest named Father Jerry working with a gang of young delinquents (a troupe of young New York actors called the Dead End Kids).
O’Brien was not nominated; instead, it was his co-star Jimmy Cagney who got a best actor nod for his role as a gangster named Rocky, a childhood friend of Father Jerry who represents the life that the priest was spared thanks to the different paths they took as boys. (In a way, this is the film’s problem: Cagney’s performance overshadows O’Brien’s, making the gangster a more vital, compelling character than the priest. In the end, the film suggests that the only way to make the priest’s path more compelling than the gangster’s is to lie.)
In the 1940s, Golden Age Catholicism reached a crescendo with “The Song of Bernadette” (1943), “Going My Way” (1944), and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945). All three were smash hits, and each was nominated for more Academy Awards than any other film in its year, including best picture, director, and multiple acting nominations. Both “The Song of Bernadette” and “Going My Way” also led their respective years for most awards won. (“The Bells of St. Mary’s” won only a single award, for sound recording; the big winner that year was Billy Wilder’s film noir “The Lost Weekend.”)
Jennifer Jones won best actress for her performance as St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes who was canonized in 1933. “The Song of Bernadette” was nominated for 12 Oscars, including best picture and director (two awards that went, most deservedly, to “Casablanca” and its director, Michael Curtiz).
Best picture winner “Going My Way” and its sequel, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” were the top-grossing films in their respective years. Both were directed by Leo McCarey and starred Bing Crosby as crooning cleric Father Chuck O’Malley.
Father Chuck embodied a new image of “cool Catholicism” quite different from the reverent piety of “The Song of Bernadette.” In both films, Father Chuck had a more conservative foil — Barry Fitzgerald’s elderly Father Fitzgibbon in “Going My Way,” Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” — who eventually comes to see the value in the young priest’s more progressive style.
The impact of Bing Crosby’s Father Chuck on the cultural mainstreaming of Catholicism in Protestant America was immense. As uplifting as audiences found them, though, they weren’t exactly profound or even especially religious films.
A deeper and more challenging religious vision came a decade later with Elia Kazan’s 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” which was actually pitched to screenwriter Budd Schulberg as “a ‘Going My Way’ with substance.”
“On the Waterfront” dominated the 1954 Academy Awards, with 12 nominations and 8 wins including best picture and director, Marlon Brando for best actor, Eva Marie Saint for best supporting actor, and Schulberg for screenplay.
Inspired by a true story of mob corruption and union violence on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey, the film portrays the anti-corruption crusade of a tough, cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking priest named Father Barry, based on real-life Jesuit John M. Corridan (an active participant in the filmmaking process).
The priest is played by Karl Malden, whose fiery performance might well have won best supporting actor, had he not been one of three actors for that film nominated in the same category! (Perhaps they split the vote, allowing the award to go to Edmond O’Brien for “The Barefoot Contessa.”)
In any other film, Malden’s great waterfront sermon, a theological high point for Golden Age religion, would have been the standout monologue:
Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead. Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!
But in “On the Waterfront,” even that tremendous speech is overshadowed by Brando’s immortal lament to his brother:
I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody … instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.
After “On the Waterfront,” the record of screen clergy and religious at the Oscars becomes more mixed. In 1959, Fred Zinnemann’s film “The Nun’s Story,” starring Audrey Hepburn as an idealistic young nun who eventually leaves religious life in discouragement, received nine Oscar nominations, but won none of them.
On the other hand, “Lilies of the Field” in 1963 was a throwback to the days of “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” with a difference: Instead of a genial crooning priest, stern Mother Maria (best actress nominee Lilia Skala) is confronted by a genial black Baptist handyman played by Sidney Poitier, who won the film’s lone Oscar of its five nominations, becoming the first black actor to win a top acting award.
“Becket” tied with “My Fair Lady” in 1964 for most nominations, including dual best actor nominations for Richard Burton as St. Thomas Becket, primate of England, and Peter O’Toole as Henry II, but won only for best adapted screenplay. The similarly themed “A Man for All Seasons” did far better at the Oscars in 1966, winning best picture, director, and actor — but the martyred protagonist, Thomas More, is a layman, and the clergy (Orson Welles’ Cardinal Wolsey; Cyril Luckham’s Archbishop Cranmer) are among his antagonists.
“The Exorcist” tied for most nominations in 1973, including best picture, director, and a supporting actor nod for Jason Miller as Father Damien Karras. “The Mission” was nominated in 1986 for best picture and director, though neither Jeremy Irons nor Robert De Niro were nominated for stellar performances as, respectively, a heroic Jesuit missionary named Father Gabriel who dies with his flock of South American converts during an invasion by European military forces, and a penitent slaver who becomes a priest, but later breaks his vows in an unsuccessful attempt to defend the mission.
Jesuit missionary martyrs may again be up for Oscar nominations at next year’s Academy Awards: Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited “Silence,” based on Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed 1966 historical novel about a Jesuit missionary in 17th-century Japan, is currently expected to open later this year. The film stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, and Tadanobu Asao.
Depending how closely Scorsese follows the novel, “Silence,” could be as wrenching and downbeat as “The Mission” — or “Spotlight,” for that matter — while still affirming a Christian theological vision like “The Mission.” If so, like “Brooklyn,” “Silence” could illustrate that movies today are still capable of depicting priests and religious as sympathetic or identifiable characters.
On the other hand, like “The Mission,” “Silence” and even “Brooklyn” are also period pieces, with historical settings at some remove from our own time. After “Spotlight,” will we see sympathetic priests or religious crop up in a contemporary film anytime soon? If so, will the Academy take note?