She was one of the most promising young stars of the 1950s and '60s, sharing the screen with Montgomery Clift, Anthony Quinn and twice with Elvis Presley. But Dolores Hart gave it all up for a much greater role with the ultimate leading man.
The HBO documentary God Is the Bigger Elvis (airing tonight at 8/7c) chronicles Hart's sudden segue at age 24 in 1963 from Hollywood darling to cloistered Benedictine nun, a decision that stunned friends, fans and — most notably — her fiancé, architect Don Robinson. And we do mean sudden: Edith Head had already designed Hart's wedding dress and the invitations were printed!
"I never saw it as pulling away from my life, but rather, as giving back to the Lord who had gifted me with so much," says Hart, now the Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. "In a period of seven years I did 11 major movies and a Broadway play. Such incredible intensity in so short a period of time made it hard for people to understand how I could give it all up. Some actors never achieve that in a lifetime! But I had a different calling. People see my vocation as a mystery, but it's really the mystery of love."
Hart, whose hits included the Presley flicks Loving You and King Creole, and the college sex comedy Where the Boys Are, gave HBO an unprecedented look into her life at the monastery, where she still answers fan mail, oversees a small community theater and is an enthusiastic Oscar voter. She even attended the most recent Oscar ceremony — her first time in 52 years — where God was nominated in the documentary short category.
The film also introduces us to Robinson, who remained very close friends with Hart until his death last December. We see their final visit together. "Don never married, though I so wanted him to," says Hart, wistfully. "He would always come to see me at the Abbey at Easter and Christmas. I miss him terribly." Such a poignant and unusual love story seems tailor-made for the movies. Would she be open to that?
"Absolutely!" says Hart, who is currently at work on her autobiography. "One of the highlights of my trip to the Oscars was being approached by a very fine film company that wants to tell my story on screen." She might even be open to a cameo. "Once an actress, always an actress," Hart says with a laugh. "I'm still drawing upon those old skills. Now it's a different kind of soul work. People don't really change, do they? You just change your habit."