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Faith on Film

Catholic themes and actors have been prominent at Academy Awards

By James Breig

The Academy Awards will be conferred on February 27th, so it’s a good time to reflect on how often Catholic themes have been the main topic of the winners in the best picture category.

You may think that the list is short. After all, religious people often complain today that films ignore or even ridicule faith, while wallowing in sex scenes or screen after screen of violence and gunfire. In reality, however, Oscars were awarded often in the past to movies that focused on faith, including ones with a priest and a martyred saint.

The best place to start is with the classic of the Catholic genre, Going My Way, the 1944 winner. That sentimental film focuses on a singing priest who comes to a parish to assist, and perhaps supplant, an aging pastor. Not only was the musical-comedy named best movie of the year, it also racked up six other statuettes, including best actor for Bing Crosby as young Father Chuck O’Malley, best supporting actor for Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitgibbon, best director for Leo McCarey, best song for “Swinging on a Star,” best writing for the original story and best screenwriting.

Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman starred in The Bells of St. Mary's, a year after the hit Going My Way.

The winners could well sing that they carried gold-colored “moonbeams home in a jar.”

Going My Way was such a hit that it spawned a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), with Crosby returning in the same role and Ingrid Bergman playing Sister Mary Benedict. While nominated for many Oscars, including best movie, best actor and best actress, it won only a single award: for best sound recording.

In 1954, another clergyman would play a key role in the best movie, On the Waterfront, which starred Marlon Brando as an ex-boxer who wrestles with his conscience and eventually testifies to end corruption on the New York-New Jersey docks.

(See image of Brando and Eva Marie Saint on Fathers for Good here.)

He is inspired to take his heroic stand by waterfront priest Father Pete Barry, portrayed by Karl Malden. The role was based on the real-life Jesuit Father John Corridan, who fought union corruption and crime in the 1950s. It was reported a few years ago by a Jesuit colleague that Father Corridan first gave his famous “Christ on the Docks” speech to a Jersey City Knights of Columbus council.

Malden was nominated for best supporting actor but lost. However, a saint did win best supporting actress – Eva Marie Saint, that is, who played Brando’s Catholic love interest along the gritty shoreline.

In 1959, a movie about religious faith would sweep loads of Oscars into a chariot and ride off with them. Eleven awards, including best picture, best actor, best director, best music and best supporting actor, went to Ben-Hur, which is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ.” No movie has won more Academy Awards than this near-four-hour epic.

Charlton Heston was the iconic title character in the blockbuster, which wove the fictional conflict of a Jewish hero and a Roman villain around scenes from the life of Christ. At the conclusion of the film, the hero’s drive for vengeance ends when he witnesses the crucifixion.

In 1965, a movie filled with novices and nuns took home the best movie prize at the Academy Awards. The Sound of Music is the musical retelling of the story of the Von Trapps, a real-life brood of Catholic children in Austria whose widowed father employs an aspiring nun as their governess. Julie Andrews was nominated for best actress as the musical Maria, who was not meant for the convent. The Von Trapps, led by the newlywed Capt. Von Trapp and Maria, flee the Nazis as their world collapses into war. In the final scene, they cross the Alps to freedom, backed by the strains of the optimistic anthem, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

The very next year, an intelligent drama about a real saint was named best movie. A Man for All Seasons recounts the events leading up to the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, who struggled against Henry VIII’s persecution of Catholics in England after the pope refused to grant him a divorce. Paul Scofield won as best actor, and the movie raked in a total of six Oscars.

The run of idyllic Catholic themes came to an abrupt end in 1972 and 1974, when the best films told the fictional story of a large Italian Catholic family who were known more for their sins. The Godfather I and II focused on mob men who turned from God and embraced evil. In the twin installments, famous scenes juxtapose brutal murders with the sacraments – a wedding, a Baptism and a First Communion – showing how the Corleone family twisted their faith and concealed their crimes behind a façade of normal life.

The Godfather in 1972 changed the way Catholics were portrayed on film.

After The Godfather triology (yes, there was a third), movies with Catholic themes would never be the same.

In the years since, the best film winners have not focused on religion, though surveys indicate that viewers want more family-friendly shows. Whoever can produce a high-quality drama with a religious theme, great actors and appeal to the hearts and souls of viewers of all ages will have a sure box-office hit.

Hollywood, take heed.

James Breig is a veteran Catholic journalist.

(Movie photos on homepage and this page from Getty Images.)