…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
You might think at first that a movie clocking in at a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes entitled The Nun’s Story might be a daunting exercise in strength and ambition, even for the most ardent of classic movie fanatics – but you would be wrong to make this assumption, especially with the glorious Audrey Hepburn at the helm. The movie is intensely gripping, and showcases by far one of Hepburn’s most arresting and riveting performances in her career. It is easy to see why she won this well-deserved nomination.
Based on a (loosely true-to-life) novel by Kathryn Hulme, The Nun’s Story is the chronicle of Gabrielle van der Mal, who as a young, determined woman in 1930’s Belgium enters the convent and after 6 months as a dedicated postulant is christened Sister Luke. Raised by a successful surgeon, Sister Luke is most accomplished in medical sciences, and feels especially called to serve in the Belgian Congo. Despite her obvious skills and gifts, she encounters several roadblocks and challenges on her way to this goal. She ultimately struggles with obedience, finding it hard to sacrifice the pride she feels in her abilities, as well as her strong ties to family and her previous life outside the convent. While she remains determined to follow her calling, she is shaken in her faith by being asked to remain ‘humbly ignorant’ of important issues around her. As the film progresses, Hepburn reveals these struggles in fascinating bits and pieces, building up to Sister Luke’s final moment of decision at the end of the film. Her portrayal is strong, assured, and movingly effective.
Director Fred Zinnemann brought brilliant creative vision to this screen adaptation of Hulme’s book. I especially enjoyed the masterful manipulation of Franz Waxman’s dramatic musical scoring of the film – building to powerful prominence in stronger moments, and cutting out and remaining slightly muted in even more key instances (the scene that particularly hangs in my memory is while Hepburn’s hair is cut; the music lowers in intensity and all we hear is the sharp snip-snip-snip of the scissors). Several wonderful actors and actresses of the time also enjoy memorable appearances in this film – among them: Peter Finch as the secular doctor Sister Luke is assigned to assist while stationed in the Congo (there are hints at a mutual attraction between the two of them that is purely Hollywood and supposedly not even suggested in the initial story), Dame Edith Evans as the Mother Superior at Sister Luke’s mother convent, Beatrice Straight as the Mother Superior of the sanitarium in which Sister Luke initially serves prior to the Congo, and even a younger Colleen Dewhurst as a severely ill mental patient who believes she is the Archangel. She shares a particularly frightening scene with Hepburn in which she manipulates Sister Luke into opening her cell to deliver a glass of water – attacking the very naive nun once the door is unlocked. There are several others – Mildred Dunnock, Patricia Collinge, Peggy Ashcroft – to name a few, who are familiar faces and contribute their greatness to this powerful film. The film indeed stands as a strong testament of all that was required by way of faithful dedication and service to the cloth in the convent’s early days.
Hepburn had previously won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1953 for her charming Princess Anne in Roman Holiday – her breakthrough role. She would go on to garner a total of 4 additional Best Actress nominations (for Sabrina, this film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Wait Until Dark). All performances demonstrate what a truly versatile actress Hepburn was – more than just a pretty face indeed. She had stiff competition in 1959 – from Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in the mental thriller Suddenly, Last Summer by Tennessee Williams (no doubt their nominations cancelled each other out with Oscar votes), Doris Day in the crafty romantic comedy Pillow Talk, and the bewitching French cinema actress Simone Signoret, who scored the 1959 Oscar in Room at the Top, as an older, damaged mistress to power-hungry Laurence Harvey. While Signoret delivered a worthy performance and earned her Oscar, if you are in any way a fan of the beautiful Ms. Hepburn – who still looks perfectly gorgeous without makeup and in a nun’s habit – you cannot miss The Nun’s Story. Check it out.