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Oscar Actors of Faith

Holy priest and nun characters have gotten the top Oscar – but not this year

By James Breig

In the long history of movie making, actors and actresses have won Oscars for playing many different sorts of roles: gangsters (Marlon Brando in The Godfather) and kings (Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII); peasants (Luise Rainer in The Good Earth) and princesses (Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday); real-life geniuses (Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur) and fictional serial killers (Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs).

A few of the golden statuettes have also been presented to performers who played outstanding Catholics, even saints, or appeared in films that centered on Catholicism.

Presented chronologically, here is a roster of Academy Award winners in the categories of best actors and actresses, and best supporting actors and actresses, who were rewarded on earth for portraying those who had their eyes on heaven. Did we miss anyone?

(See the article on Catholic-themed Oscar winning movies.)

1938: Spencer Tracy won the top acting prize for playing the real-life Boys Town priest, Father Edward Flanagan. The Irish-born clergyman was the founder of the Omaha, Nebraska, refuge for wayward youth and is sometimes credited with coining the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a bad boy.” In accepting the Oscar, Tracy spoke about the man he portrayed, saying, “If you have seen him through me, then I thank you.”

1943: On her 25th birthday, Jennifer Jones was handed a best-actress Oscar for portraying 14-year-old French girl Bernadette Soubirous. The movie was The Song of Bernadette, about the 19th-century Marian apparitions in Lourdes that brought forth a spring of healing water. The radiant innocence of Jones’ face and her simple acting manner caught the attention of critics far and wide, and the movie launched her career.

1944: Like Spencer Tracy earlier, Bing Crosby wore a Roman collar and won the Oscar for best actor, playing Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way, which also won best movie of the year and several other awards. Crosby had a lot of talented support. The prize for best supporting actor went to co-star, Barry Fitzgerald, for his success in playing an older priest, Father Fitzgibbon.

A young Natalie Wood shares a humorous skit with Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. (Photo; Getty Images)

1947: Edmund Gwenn, a veteran character actor, played a saint – sort of – in Miracle on 34th Street, a comedy about a little girl who believes in Santa Claus and forces a trial to prove that a department store Santa is genuine. Was the bearded Gwenn really Santa? If so, then he portrayed St. Nicholas, the original bringer of gifts – and got a big present in return: a supporting-actor award. The movie is best known, however, for introducing a young Natalie Wood to a wide audience.

1963: Sidney Poitier did not play a Catholic in Lilies of the Field, but he was surrounded by them in this film about a group of German immigrant nuns who hire him, a Baptist, to build a chapel. Maybe their prayers helped get him the first best-actor Academy Award for a black performer. “Amen,” as the popular song in the movie went.

1966: The first male saint to win a best-acting prize was St. Thomas More, the role Paul Scofield played to perfection in A Man for All Seasons, which also scored as best movie. The screenplay centers on the conflict between More and Henry VIII over the latter’s demand that his subjects consent to his status as head of the Church of England. The dispute led to More’s martyrdom by decapitation and the severing of the English (Anglican) Church from the Successor of St. Peter.

1989: Two cast members of My Left Foot would win Oscars: Daniel Day-Lewis as writer Christy Brown won as best actor, and Brenda Fricker, as his mother, received the award for best supporting actress. The movie tells the true story of a large Catholic family in Ireland, one of whom was Christy, who was so afflicted with cerebral palsy that he could move only one foot. In its review of the movie, the Catholic News Service (CNS) wrote: “The film’s most important statement is its testament to the incredible power of will over adversity and also its tribute to a mother’s unquestioning love, devotion and belief in her child.”

For playing Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Sarandon received best acress award. (Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

1995: Susan Sarandon won the top actress award for her role as a real-life nun Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. The story is about her efforts to redeem a condemned man who is awaiting his execution for murder and rape. In the end, he admits his guilt and asks for forgiveness from the survivors.

The 20 nominees in the acting categories at this year’s Academy Awards, to be presented on Feb. 27, include not a single person who would qualify for the preceding list.

Let us pray – for a new generation of filmmakers who will present holy men and women in a way that will capture the modern imagination. Any suggestions for subjects? How about Mother Teresa, John Paul II, the youthful hero Pier Giorgio Frassati, or from more recent news, the Chilean miners who emerged from the earth with their faith intact?

Write your own ideas in the comments section.

James Breig is a veteran Catholic journalist who writes about cultural issues.

Photo on homepage: Jennifer Jones won best actress honors in 1943 for portraying Bernadette Soubirous. (Photo: Getty Images)