In her first film, which hit theaters in 1957, Dolores Hart gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss.
Before long, the beautiful actress with the all-American looks was appearing opposite Hollywood heavyweights such as Anthony Quinn and Montgomery Clift. “The new Grace Kelly,” they called her.
On Broadway, she got nominated for a Tony. Off stage, she got engaged. Then, in 1963, Hart, just 24, gave it all up. She felt that God was calling her to become a nun.
On Saturday, Mother Dolores Hart, now 74 and prioress at a Benedictine monastery in Connecticut, was in Charlotte to talk about her remarkable life – recounted in detail in her new memoir, “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows.”
She spoke and signed books at the Diocese of Charlotte’s ninth annual Eucharistic Congress, which began Saturday morning with a procession in uptown Charlotte that included singing and prayers.
Before the book signing, Hart, wearing a suave beret atop her traditional habit, answered questions from the Observer about everything from Elvis – she co-starred with him in “Loving You” (1957) and “King Creole” (1958) – to the reasons why, as an Oscar-nominated documentary about her put it, “God Is the Bigger Elvis” in her life.
Hart is the only nun who’s a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. And though a painful neurological disease, peripheral neuropathy, meant that she arrived at the Saturday interview in a wheelchair, the charisma that made her a star was still evident as she spoke about kissing Elvis, getting a glimpse of his spiritual side and finding lasting peace and joy as a member of the community at the Abbey of Regina Laudis.
‘I really live here’
In 1960, in “Francis of Assisi,” she played St. Clare of Assisi, the Italian woman who was inspired by Francis to become a nun. Filming in Rome, Hart got an audience with then-Pope John XXIII, who seemed to see – before Hart did – that she would follow in the footsteps of Clare.
“My name is Dolores Hart,” she told the pontiff.
“No, no,” he told her, “you are Chiara” – Italian for Clare.
But Hart said it was a 1962 film, “Lisa,” that got her thinking seriously of leaving Hollywood for the monastery. She had visited the abbey over the years, to get away from the pressures of life and career.
“I had a response to that place,” she told the Observer. “It was a feeling like ‘I really live here. I want to live here,’ ” she said.
Then came “Lisa,” in which she played a Jewish woman tortured in a Nazi concentration camp. In talking to a real Holocaust survivor and in pondering her own life, Hart began to hear a call from God.
“I think it was in that movie that I really began to question the meaning of redemption and the fact that one’s life could be a redemptive life,” she said. “And I began asking myself, ‘How am I living a life that’s worthy of redeeming anything other than satisfying myself?’ ”
Hart on Elvis and the Oscars
• Meeting Elvis: “I didn’t know who he was. When I was introduced to him, it was the most embarrassing thing. He came over and said, ‘Miss Dolores, my name is Elvis Presley.’ And I took his hand and said, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ Oy vey.”
• Their kiss: “I tried to approach it with an openness, to say let’s make this something real and honest to the characters so that (viewers) would believe there was a genuine relationship between these people. As you probably saw in the film, it lasted about four seconds. But the buildup on it was demanding…. I think, for me, the realization of kissing him – it was like kissing a new world that was opening to me. Because I knew by that time that (producer) Mr. (Hal) Wallis had offered me a seven-year contract and I knew from what went on in the newspapers that my life was going to take a tremendous change. So kissing Elvis was like kissing hello to a new world and a career.”
• Elvis’ acting ambitions: “He told me one time that he really wanted to be the next James Dean. He wanted parts that would really help him as a good actor. But he didn’t get those parts. His manager (Col. Tom Parker) – all he wanted was ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ ”
• Elvis’ spiritual side: “In ‘King Creole,’ we couldn’t walk on the street because of all the kids. So they had to put planks from building to building for us to go anywhere. In between shots, we were to wait in one of the hotel rooms. I can recall him picking up the Gideon Bible and just opening it at random, reading something from it and then saying ‘This is what this means to me.’ Or asking me, ‘Miss Dolores, would you open it and see what you think?’ At first, I wondered if he was playing games. But that happened more than once, and it happened in a way that I felt there was a young man in search of understanding something.”
• The No. 1 question she got after entering the monastery: “Did you get a lock of (Elvis’) hair?” (She did not.)
• Her advice to young people who want fame and celebrity – things she gave away: “Fame or the drive for that essentially can be (interpreted) as a drive for your own identity, a drive to find our own domain – who you are as an individual. And with the young members coming into the (abbey), I try to say, ‘How do you find out why you think you were created? And what can you bring to your life that’s different from anyone else? So that (drive for) fame isn’t just an empty tool, but it really becomes the medium for disclosure of the uniqueness of your own person.”
• Why she still wears the traditional nun’s habit: “We retain the habit because, as Benedictines, one of our vows is stability.…I’m more comfortable than when I take it off.”
• Voting for the Academy Awards: “In my 25th anniversary of vows (in 1988), Karl Malden, the president of the academy called me and said, ‘You’ve been a holding member. Can’t you become active now? I mean, really, don’t they trust you after 25 years? So I asked the abbess, and she said, ‘Absolutely, Mother, you can vote. So I said to Karl, ‘I don’t know how to get the films. I can’t leave the abbey.’ He said, ‘Well, now they’ve got a new digital format where I can send you a machine. You put the disc in the machine, and you can see it right there in your office.’ Now I have a way to participate.”
• Her favorite Oscar contender: “The one that I really loved (last year) was ‘Les Miserables.’ (This year) I’ve been looking for something I can say yes to with that same kind of enthusiasm.”
• Hollywood’s image: “I always feel Hollywood reflects the people. People don’t reflect Hollywood. And they want to sell films to the people who want to see them. They do the films they think people want. I can’t place my blame on Hollywood. People have to ask for something more, to make demands. That’s the key.”
• The meaning behind her book title, which comes from St. Benedict: “That you listen not just casually, but you listen with your heart. You listen with your capacity to love. And if you listen with love, you’ll know what to do.”
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