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The story of the making of The Nun's Story (1959) would, in itself, make a great book or documentary. It's extraordinary that this dramatic tale, tackling the very controversial subject of a nun leaving the order, has been nearly forgotten - even more so when one considers the director (Fred Zinnemann), the star (Audrey Hepburn) and the phenomenal reviews and box-office receipts. By the end of its initial play dates, the picture had become the most successful movie Warner Brothers ever made, with grosses surpassing the $7 million mark!
By the late 1950s, Audrey Hepburn was, unquestionably, one of the most celebrated actresses in the business; certainly, at her home studio, she was Paramount's biggest star. Besieged with scripts, Hepburn had wisely turned down the starring role in George Stevens' production, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), correctly citing her own age (then 28) as the major problem. She was also considering a possible project with director Alfred Hitchcock. Yet, at the same time, amidst all her great personal success, Hepburn was fighting depression, due, in part, to her strong desire to have children.
Drawn to Kathryn Hulme's best-selling novel, The Nun's Story, Hepburn saw many parallels with her own life. Like the lead character, Sister Luke, Hepburn was Belgian-born, and, during WWII, felt the terror of having a brother captured by the Germans (in Audrey's case, it was her half brother, Ian). Mainly, it was Sister Luke's fundamental beliefs which appealed to the star, who admitted "...the part was suited to my nature." (Thirty years later, Hepburn would return to Africa, where much of the story took place, to help the underprivileged, much as her character does throughout the course of the narrative.)
Considering Hepburn's clout at the time, it's surprising that Paramount rejected The Nun's Story as a viable project for her, though the real problem was the proposed budget. The studio was still quaking from the costs of the King Vidor/Audrey Hepburn epic, War and Peace (1956), and was dubious as to the box-office potential of a nun-theme picture, even though they were concurrently pursuing the Maria Von Trapp biography (later turneinto the popular stage and movie musical, The Sound of Music, 1965) as a possible vehicle for Hepburn.
Warner Brothers mogul Jack Warner also had his doubts about a movie with a nun as the main character, but was determined to obtain Hepburn's services. Fred Zinnemann, who was already attached to the project, had been interested in the novel since it was brought to him by Gary Cooper, and his participation added prestige and artistry to the package. After all, Zinnemann had a proven track record of smash hits, including From Here to Eternity (1953) and Oklahoma! (1955). Cooper, who had won his second Oscar® as the sheriff in Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), may have originally thought himself ideal for the role of the dedicated doctor (eventually portrayed in the film by Peter Finch). In addition, he enjoyed working with Audrey in Love in the Afternoon (1957), and probably wanted to repeat the experience.
Ironically, Zinnemann had been the first person approached to helm War and Peace, but having just completed Oklahoma!, the understandably exhausted director opted instead for a small-scale, intimate drama (A Hatful of Rain, 1957), although he, too, wanted to work with Hepburn. Almost immediately, the Catholic Church raised objections - mainly that the story of a dedicated nun leaving the order would not be good for recruitment. Dominican advisers reviewed the script line by line, often spending hours debating the use of phrasing, such as "against Nature" vs. "above Nature."
Location shooting was particularly challenging; in fact, no aspect of this mammoth production was simple, as the cast and crew quickly learned. But Zinnemann was soon praising Hepburn's dedication to the film as well as her co-stars': "I stashed my 'nuns' (Hepburn, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft) away at different convents....Making the daily rounds at 10:00 AM, I'd arrive in the warmth of a taxi...and all of them would come out of the cloisters absolutely purple with cold but fascinated by what they were involved in and very excited by the way they were getting prepared for their characters."
One of the few conflicts between director and star concerned her aging during the course of the picture's seventeen-year arc. Zinnemann wanted Hepburn to at least have some gray in her hair, but at the story's conclusion, former Sister Luke still looks as young and fresh as she had nearly two decades before. Another battle Zinnemann lost was with Jack Warner over the photography: "...I dearly wanted to shoot the European parts in black and white and...then...to burst out into all the hot, vivid stirring colors of Central Africa." Warner swore that such arty pretensions would hurt the film's commercial prospects, and Zinnemann conceded. Nevertheless, Franz Planer, the brilliant cinematographer, won an Oscar® nomination for his spectacular Technicolor imagery in The Nun's Story. Planer, who remained Hepburn's favorite cameraman, lensed more of her movies than any other cameraman (Roman Holiday, 1953; The Unforgiven, 1960; Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961; and The Children's Hour, 1962).
One important creative battle Zinnemann did win was with the great composer Franz Waxman. Waxman's disdain for the Catholic Church resulted in themes resembling "...background for the dungeons of The Count of Monte Cristo. I decided not to use very much of it. Franz was outraged and complained to...Warner. The wrangle centered on my wish to have absolute silence at the end...as the nun changes into her civilian clothes and walks out the convent door...quietly disappearing...."
Zinnemann cleverly countered Warner's argument that all his pictures have big music at the end by suggesting, "If you have festive music, you are saying to the audience, 'Warner Brothers congratulate the nun on leaving the convent.' The end result remains one of the most effective endings in film history, highlighted by Waxman's understated score which was reworked with Zinnemann's guidance. Surprisingly, the music garnered yet another Academy Award® nomination for the composer - he earned a total of 12!).
Despite the grueling hot humid weather of the Belgian Congo portion of the production, spirits remained high during filming. Even the ever-present simmering racial tensions were momentarily tempered by some amusing but unexpected moments of culture shock. Zinnemann remembers that "...Our 'nuns' carried make-up cases and smoked cigarettes between set-ups; the blacks who came to watch the shooting could not believe their eyes. Then someone said, 'Of course, these are American nuns.' And the blacks said, '...ah, yes, now we understand.' "
While Hepburn carries the weight of The Nun's Story lightly, she is ably assisted by an expert supporting cast including Peter Finch (whose off-the-set womanizing was a source of great amusement to the female cast members), Patricia Collinge, Mildred Dunnock, Dean Jagger, Lionel Jeffries, Barbara O'Neil (Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone With the Wind, 1939), Patricia Bosworth (future biographer of Montgomery Clift), and, in a stunning screen debut, Colleen Dewhurst as a mentally disturbed patient.
With eight Oscar® nominations, it's surprising that The Nun's Story came up empty-handed on the night of the awards. Or is it? It couldn't have been an industry prejudice against religious pictures because Ben-Hur virtually swept all the major categories in the 1959 Oscar® race. Still, Hepburn fans swear Audrey was robbed of her award, although one is reminded of Billy Wilder's famous comment, "If she's not a whore, she's a bore." Instead, the Best Actress Oscar® went to Simone Signoret for her undeniably moving portrayal of the adulterous wife in Room at the Top.
Warner, who up to the picture's actual release worried about the box-office potential of The Nun's Story, jubilantly wisecracked that he had a last-minute title switch set to go if the picture stalled: She Kicked the Habit. Another amusing bit of trivia related to the film occurred in a first-run California theater in late 1959. Selected as a test case for one of director William Castle's gimmicky devices - Percepto! - the movie house seats were wired with vibrating motors for his horror thriller, The Tingler (1959), while The Nun's Story was finishing its run at the theater. Robb White, the screenwriter of The Tingler recollected, "...The Nun's Story was to close on a Sunday night, and The Tingler was going to open on Monday. We got in a huge crew...to spend the day wiring the vibrators to the seats. But that night, just at the most tragic moment of The Nun's Story, somebody touched the master switch and the seats began vibrating in wave after wave. There was absolute pandemonium!"
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Robert Anderson
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Costume Design: Marjorie Best
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Gabrielle Van Der Mal), Peter Finch (Dr. Fortunate), Edith Evans (Mother Emmanuel Superior General), Dame Peggy Ashcroft (Mother Mathilde), Dean Jagger (Dr. Van Der Mal), Mildred Dunnock (Sister Margharita), Patricia Collinge (Sister William), Colleen Dewhurst (Archangel), Lionel Jeffries (Doctor Goovaerts), Niall MacGinnis (Father Vermeuhlen), Beatrice Straight (Mother Christophe).
C-152m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Mel Neuhaus