Cast & Crew
Dame Edith Evans
Dame Peggy Ashcroft
In the 1920s, in Bruges, Brussels, Gabrielle Van der Mal is preparing to be a nun. She leaves behind her worldly goods, but decides to keep a pen given to her by her widowed father, a renowned physician. After bidding farewell to her sisters and brother, Gaby walks with her father to the convent. Dr. Van der Mal doubts that Gaby is meant to be a nun, saying that he can see her chaste and poor, but never obedient. After reminding her that the Order forbids her to ask for her most heartfelt desire, which is to be assigned to the Congo as a nurse, he tells her not to believe she has failed if she is ill-suited to convent life. Feeling certain of her vocation, Gaby serenely dismisses his misgivings. At the convent, her father points out a nun who is considered a "Living Rule," because she personifies the rules of the Order by her exemplary behavior. After presenting Gaby's dowry to the Order, Dr. Van der Mal tells his daughter to be happy and leaves. Gaby is disappointed to learn that she is forbidden to talk to her mentor, the nurse Sister William, for many months. Following strict rules, the postulants adapt to the sound of the bells, which call them to awaken, to chapel, to meals and to the Grand Silence, which are the hours the nuns are forbidden to talk. To develop their spiritual life, the postulants may not ask for anything on their own behalf and are strenuously tested to root out their faults. Mother Emmanuel tells them that the self-sacrificing life of a nun is a life against nature. On their Day of Vesture, when they are given new names and the novice's habit, the young women are expected to turn from memories of their past, requiring that Gaby give up the pen from her father. Henceforth, she is known as Sister Luke. After the ceremony, Gaby blushes when her hospital patients tell her she is "a beautiful nun," and thus commits the sin of pride. By discussing her discomfort with a fellow novice, she breaks the rule of silence. New tests and penances are introduced to the novices and, once a week, they are expected to announce publicly their own faults, as well as those of others they have witnessed. Although she tries to obey, Gaby frequently breaks rules and, even when she succeeds in following the rules, feels she is sinning by taking pride in her success. After taking her vows, Gaby is sent to the School of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. Having already been trained by her father, Gaby does well, but incites the jealousy of an older nun, who reports to Mother Marcella that Gaby is guilty of pride. Marcella suggests to Gaby that she fail her examinations to prove her humility, but soul-searching prevents Gaby from doing so. Afterward, instead of sending Gaby to the Congo, Marcella assigns her to work in a mental sanitarium. There, a dangerous schizophrenic patient nicknamed Archangel tricks Gaby into unlocking her cell without asking for assistance. After Archangel attacks her, the shamed Gaby chides herself for her prideful belief that she could handle the situation alone and confides to the sanitarium's mother superior of her internal struggle with obedience. The nun, believing Marcella was wrong to ask Gaby to fail intentionally, suggests that she be easier on herself. After three years, Gaby takes final vows, as her family watches the ceremony. Although she is assigned to the Congo, Gaby is disappointed to learn that she will not work with the natives, but at the "white" hospital for Europeans under the supervision of the eccentric Dr. Fortunati, a bachelor and atheist described as a "genius and devil" by the nuns. The shrewd and demanding Fortunati is pleased with Gaby's professionalism, but discerns her exhausting inner struggle. Gaby works long hours and institutes useful innovations, only to be accused by the bishop of "singularizing" herself when her successes draw attention. When a beloved priest has an accident possibly requiring amputation and there are no doctors available to treat him, Gaby saves the priest and his leg, garnering praise from Fortunati, who then jokes that she will have to confess her "sin of pride." Later, with Fortunati, Gaby visits a leper colony served by a priest, who has dedicated himself to the lepers as a penance for past sins and is now infected himself. Back at the hospital, Gaby's nursing duties conflict with her religious obligations. Although her obligations to her religious life are supposed to take precedence, Gaby cannot sacrifice her patients' psychological needs to the Grand Silence. As Fortunati feared, Gaby's tension from her inner struggles combined with long hours of work take their toll and she contracts tuberculosis, a disease for which she would be required to leave the Congo. Having worked with many nursing nuns, Fortunati tells Gaby that she is a "worldly nun," who is good for patients, but who cannot conform to the convent's expectations. "That's your illness," he says, "the TB is a byproduct." After he wryly warns her not to let the sin of pride make her confess that she correctly diagnosed her illness, he promises to cure the "byproduct" and explain it to the mother superior in a way that allows Gaby to remain. He prescribes several months of rest in isolation, where Gaby is pampered with wine and a special diet, and given a pet monkey. As she recuperates, she is at peace with herself and jokes to a fellow nun that she may never again break a rule. Wryly, the nun tells her they are talking during Grand Silence. After she returns to duty, a native man, swayed by a witch doctor's superstitions, kills a kindly nun who hoped to convince unconverted natives to attend Christmas Eve service. Illunga, a native who assists the nuns, confides to Gaby his surprise that the nuns are not angry. After Gaby explains the nuns' belief in forgiveness, Illunga and others come to the service. When a nurse is needed to accompany an important mental patient to Belgium, Gaby is the only person suitably trained. She fervently hopes that she will be allowed to return, but the mother superior decides to keep her there as "a good example" to the other nuns while she renews her spiritual life. From her father, who continues to worry that her life is being misspent, Gaby learns that her brother and two brothers-in-law are in the army. After Fortunati writes that her replacement "is a real nun," the mother superior asks Gaby if she was in love with the doctor, but Gaby denies it. Although she prays for detachment from her memories, Gaby remembers Fortunati's prediction that she would be unhappy at the motherhouse. The outbreak of World War II makes Gaby's return to the Congo impossible. German bombing is followed by the German occupation of Belgium, but the nuns are expected to feel charity toward their enemy. In the local hospital where she is assigned, Gaby observes that a young nurse, the novice Lisa, is helping the Underground Resistance. After asking God to forgive her disobedience, Gaby offers her help. Upon learning that her father has been killed, Gaby wrestles with her conscience, finally acknowledging that she is "filled with hate." Believing that she should no longer be a nun, Gaby asks for permission to leave the convent. When permission is denied, she threatens to leave without it. Lisa, who guesses Gaby's decision, gives her a contact in the Underground, so that she has a place to go where her skills can be used. After convincing her superiors to put through her paperwork, Gaby is called in to sign the documents and her dowry is returned, but she is refused a last blessing by the Mother Superior. Alone, she is sent to a room, where she replaces her habit with civilian clothes and takes off the wedding ring that symbolizes her marriage to Christ. After exiting the convent, she walks away to a different life.
Dame Edith Evans
Dame Peggy Ashcroft
Angelina Tartara Conte
Alberto De Rossi
Grazia De Rossi
Oliver S. Garretson
Father R. P. Lunders
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Essentials: The Nun's Story -
Fred Zinnemann's 1959 The Nun's Story was such an uncompromising change of pace that it seems a courageous project even by today's standards. Author Kathryn C. Hulme had served as a director of a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Camp in liberated Germany, helping displaced persons. She met the subject of her book, ex- nun Marie-Louise Habets, while both women were doing this work. Gary Cooper first sent Hulme's #1 bestseller to director Fred Zinnemann. One of his most celebrated movies, The Search (1948) is a touching humanist document about the efforts of the UNRRA. Zinnemann met Hepburn during preparations for the 1956 Italian production of War and Peace. Paramount turned down the Nuns project, and Jack Warner's initial opinion was that "no one wants to see a documentary on how to become a nun." The interest of the highly bankable Audrey Hepburn made the film possible.
The famed playwright Robert Anderson was engaged at an early date to write the screenplay. He thought of it as a perfect vehicle for Ingrid Bergman, but the actress knew she was too old for the part, and suggested Audrey Hepburn as well.
The highly independent Hepburn identified strongly with Habets, whose name in the book was changed to Gabrielle Van Der Mal. Both women had lost beloved fathers, and both had lost brothers in the war. Hepburn's popularity and reputation for integrity smoothed over many preproduction problems. The Catholic Church worried that the film's account of the hardships experienced by Hepburn's "Sister Luke" would be bad for recruiting. They questioned scenes in the Congo in which Sister Luke has a potentially romantic relationship with an Italian doctor. This made sense considering the romantic stars that where considered for the role. Gérard Philipe and Yves Montand wanted too much money, or thought the part of the doctor was too small. English actor Peter Finch had just turned forty, and had just played a rugged, romantic leading man in the war movie A Town Like Alice (1956). Like his character Dr. Fortunati, Finch had a reputation as a hell-raiser and womanizer. The business-oriented Hepburn was faithful to her actor-director husband Mel Ferrer.
A remarkable group of actresses was enlisted to play the nuns that train and supervise Hepburn's Sister Luke: Dame Edith Evans, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, Patricia Collinge, Rosalie Crutchley, Ruth White and Barbara O'Neil. To prepare for their parts, the ladies were allowed to live in convents for a number of days. Zinnemann drove to see them every morning; the women would run out and tell him that they were fascinated and excited, even though it was freezing cold in the cloister. Of all the actresses playing nuns, the director was most impressed with Peggy Ashcroft. An agnostic, Ashcroft nevertheless projected an undeniable mystic quality.
Sister Luke's challenge is to become a selfless, sacrificing 'instrument,' for whom the love of God takes precedence over every mortal concern. In granting their approval, The Church objected to one line in which Edith Evans' Mother Superior says that a nun's life is "against nature." Director Zinnemann remembered reaching a compromise in which the words were changed to, "above nature." But in the final film the original reading prevails. A Nun's Story came through uncompromised.
Filming was split between Belgium, the Belgian Congo, and interiors in Rome. Hepburn had requested cameraman Jack Cardiff, a veteran of shoots in Africa. She was pleased with the choice of Franz Planer, who had filmed her hit Roman Holiday (1953) and would later be responsible for the stylish Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Most of the film's entire first hour took place in a convent during Sister Luke's training. Zinnemann proposed that this section be filmed in B&W, but the studio overruled the idea as being too arty. The makeup for the nuns required special thought. They had to look as though they weren't wearing any, but it was unthinkable to allow a glamorous star like Hepburn to go without. Her eye treatment was carefully minimized.
Audrey Hepburn loved working in the Congo with the cast and crew, but did ask for a few perks. Her tiny terrier dog was waived through the colonial quarantine rules, and she was granted an air conditioner for her room. But she also traveled to work in a small canoe, in rivers inhabited by herds of friendly but dangerous hippos. For one sequence the company moved upriver to a mission hospital caring for patients suffering from leprosy. Hepburn took a keen interest in the social work being done. The doctor assured Hepburn and actor Niall MacGuinness that there was little or no chance of visitors contracting the disease - but added that the incubation period was seventeen years. The African extras were confused when they saw actresses in nun's clothing smoking cigarettes; Hepburn even used a cigarette holder. Zinnemann recalled the Africans being satisfied with his explanation, "Oh, these are American nuns.
The crew was aware of political tensions during filming. The European government enforced a curfew for blacks that began at sunset. In 1960 the colonials were overthrown in a bloody revolution. Some of the real nuns that Zinnemann and Hepburn had worked with on location were killed.
Back in Rome, the company went to work on interior sets designed and built by the celebrated designer Alexandre Trauner. As The Church would not allow real nuns to serve as extras, the production hired trained dancers, who could be expected to gracefully mimic the group rituals and work for hours while wearing the confining garments. Fred Zinnemann cast his gallery of older, experienced nuns from the Roman social set. When Church officials visited to judge the film's recreation of a large chapel scene, at least one told Zinnemann that his nuns looked more devout than the real thing. The shooting was held up by almost a week when Audrey Hepburn came down with kidney stone trouble, which had reportedly begun when she was dehydrated in Africa. Production finished a little late, in June of 1958. Hepburn was well enough to rush back to Hollywood, where just four weeks later she began filming Green Mansions (1959) for her director-husband Mel Ferrer.
No American movie had examined a novice's struggle with the spiritual life as did The Nun's Story. As in the book, Sister Luke (Hepburn) has no difficulty fulfilling her vows of poverty and chastity, but the third vow of obedience became a grave obstacle. As he bids her farewell, her father (Dean Jagger) says that she is too independent and stubborn to conform to the role laid out for her by The Church. The first forty minutes of the film depict the 'boot camp' designed to mold the novices into a mold of utter selflessness, devotion and service. Telling details emphasize Sister Luke's innate individuality: told to cast off all possessions of her past life, she hangs onto a gold pen that her fiancé had given her. Lying prostrate on the floor, she sneaks a peek at the Mother Superior (Edith Evans). Although Sister Luke has experience in nursing and lab work and is the best of the students, a supervisor (Ruth White) notices the pride she takes in her personal accomplishments. Sister Luke is advised to prove her humility by purposely failing her exams.
Sister Luke is first assigned to a Church-run asylum, where she disobeys safety instructions and is attacked by a violent patient (Colleen Dewhurst, in a frightening performance). The Congo is in many ways an idyllic setting. But instead of doing her duty and maintaining a rigorous spiritual life as instructed by Mother Mathilde (Peggy Ashcroft), Sister Luke's competence and organizational reforms bring her into conflict with the somewhat arbitrary rules of her calling. The dedicated, slightly rakish Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) does not tempt her, but she is shaken by his continual criticism. Why should such a talented nurse be a nun? When an emergency arises, Sister Luke performs a difficult, demanding operation on her own. Yet she is expected to suppress her pride in the accomplishment.
A Nun's Story resolves Sister Luke's conflict of faith in a way that doesn't soften the pain of real-life decisions. Back in Belgium when war breaks out, she finds herself compelled to defy The Church's order to remain strictly neutral under the German occupation. The real-life nun's differences with The Church, unstated in the film, were more political, but the film does make clear that she leaves because she has lost her calling and wishes to become a nurse for the resistance. A quote from the real Marie-Louise Habets betrays no doubt: "I have given too many cups of water in His name and He knows I would go on doing it, whether working for Him as a nun or as a war nurse."
The final scene held audiences breathless, as Sister Luke returns to the secular world after seventeen years a nun. Director Zinnemann decided to end the film without curtain music, so as not to impose an opinion about Sister Luke's choice: audiences must decide for themselves. However, in addition to the bells on the soundtrack, we do hear a subtle note of organ music.
A Nun's Story is possibly Fred Zinnemann's most accomplished movie, especially given the difficulty of the subject. The cutting is remarkably fluid and his visuals are both elegant and austere. The overall style is quite modern for its year. Time jumps occur across cuts instead of dissolves; when a war montage is required Zinnemann handles it with simple voiceovers spoken over shots of trees under dark skies. There are no scenes of massed troops yet the occupation is firmly felt. Even at 2.5 hours, the studio did not request that cuts be made. The director's only regret was a minor detail. When Sister Luke's hair is revealed at the finish, it shows no signs of aging, not a single white hair.
Although Warners reportedly thought their show would be a flop, they gave it the full marketing push merited by Audrey Hepburn's star status. As it turned out, the Vatican reversed its position and approved of the picture whole-heartedly. The only real dissent was in connection with the book. Martin Quigley of the Catholic Legion of Decency objected to the depiction of a nun's life as inhumane forced labor. Nobody else had difficulty understanding that the film was a period piece; by 1959 conditions in most orders were much less rigorous.
The movie quickly became a notable, profitable success. Variety's notice praised it as a "soaring and luminous film," adding that it is Audrey Hepburn's "most demanding film role and (she) gives her finest performance." With her contracted ten percent of the gross receipts, A Nun's Story was Hepburn's most profitable film. Its prominence drew attention away from the recently-released Green Mansions, one of the actress's few flops. Although Ben-Hur swept the Oscars that year, Zinnemann's film garnered eight nominations, including one for Best Actress. Ms.Hepburn would later claim that the experience had a profound effect on her life. She would later dedicate much of her time and effort to the support and promotion of The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). In 1989 she became a special UNICEF ambassador in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. Trivia (6.27.15)
Playwright-screenwriter Robert Anderson wrote bicycle scenes for the movie because he saw that Audrey Hepburn liked bicycle riding. She rode bikes around film lots, but also on the streets of Beverly Hills.
The real-life Sister Luke left her order because of the Catholic Church's neutrality in the German occupation. Specifically, she cited The Church's failure to protest the treatment of Belgian Jews, and its support of King Leopold, who collaborated with the Nazis.
Both director Fred Zinnemann and Audrey Hepburn agreed that neither Sister Luke nor The Church should be fully responsible for her abandoning her vows, that the failure should be shared 'fifty-fifty.'
Hepburn's fee was $200,000 vs. ten percent of the gross receipts. When the film became a hit, she indeed did very well by it.
Fred Zinnemann remembered the film as a moving experience: "The strongest memory I retain is the total faith of so many nuns we met and the marvelous serenity with which they went about their duties and devotions."
By Glenn Erickson
The Essentials: The Nun's Story -
The Nun's Story
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
The Nun's Story
Sister Luke is based on a real-life former nun named Marie-Louise Habets, whom Audrey Hepburn consulted prior to production.
An often-reported legend surrounding this movie is the story that Hepburn demanded a bidet be provided for her on location in the Congo. Hepburn always denied this, wondering how such an extravagance could even be hooked up in the Congo.
Members of the Rome Opera ballet corps were hired to play some of the nuns, and complex convent rituals were literally choreographed for them.
After the opening credits, Beatrice Straight as "Mother Christophe" quotes passages from the Bible, Matthew 10:39 and 19:21, in voice-over: "'He that shall lose his life for me shall find it. If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor and come follow me.'" Continuing, she says, "Each sister shall understand that upon entering the convent, she has made the sacrifice of her life to God." Although the Motion Picture Herald review reported that the film ran 154 minutes, New York Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and the film's copyright record listed the running time as 149 minutes, the approximate running time of the print viewed.
According to a January 1957 Los Angeles Times article, Kathryn Cavarly Hulme (1900-1981), the author of the novel The Nun's Story, met Marie-Louise Habets, the woman who would later be known in her book as "Sister Luke, Gabrielle Van der Mal" while working with World War II refugees in Europe in 1945. After the war, Hulme sponsored Habet's immigration to the U.S., converted to Catholicism and, after a few years, wrote the former nun's story. Contemporary sources stated that Hulme and Habets, who preferred to be known only by her fictional name, lived together in Los Angeles and later, Hawaii.
According to a September 13, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, Eliot Hyman's purchase of the film rights to Hulme's novel for as high as $125,000, depending on the success of the book sales and other conditions, was reported a week after the book was published. According to a notation in an M-G-M story file dated September 1956, the sale of Hulme's book to Hyman was arranged by Ray Stark, who was an agent at that time. A September 10, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the property was bought by Fred Zinnemann, who was "reportedly negotiating" to direct the film at Paramount.
A September 29, 1956 Los Angeles Examiner news item reported that Jack Warner purchased the book, which the news item claimed was sought by several studios, for $250,000. According to November 1956 Los Angeles Times and Hollywood Reporter news items, the book, which was selected as a Book of the Month, was acquired from a Canadian firm, P.R.M. Associated Artists Productions through Hyman and Stark. Although the film was not shot until mid-1958, as early as January 1957, according to a Los Angeles Times news item, Warner Bros. was negotiating with Audrey Hepburn to play the lead.
Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items added Mitzi Roman and Grazia Marescalchi to the cast, and reported that singer Bob Anthony tested for the role of a priest. The Newsweek review stated that the film contained 108 speaking roles, seventy Italian ballerinas and a Polish princess. According to the Hollywood Reporter review, Cornelius Dumeer, who played "Father Andre," was an actual Congo missionary. (Dumeer's name was erroneously listed as "Diemer" in the CBCS.)
The onscreen credits specify that the interiors were shot at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy. Warner Bros. studio notes found in the file for the film at the AMPAS Library added that the film also was shot on location in Rome, Brussels and other cities in Belgium, as well as the Belgian Congo. According to a March 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was partially shot on location at Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo. An April 1959 Los Angeles Times article reported that the film was shot at places described in Hulme's book, among them, Rome and the national hospital in the Belgian Congo. The Hollywood Reporter review reported that, "In Africa, the film shows a sequence actually shot among the monstrously malformed inmates of a leper colony." In 1959, a few months after production of The Nun's Story was completed, a violent black-nationalist uprising broke out in the Congo, causing most Europeans to flee. The country became independent from Belgium in 1960 and was later renamed Zaïre. Stanleyville was renamed Kisangani.
According to a June 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, due to the AFM musicians' strike that had been ongoing for five months, composer Franz Waxman was sent abroad to work on all phases of preparing the score, from composing to recording. The score contains no music over the end titles, because, as noted by a modern source, Zinnemann did not wish to imply by the mood of the music a judgment about Gabrielle's decision to leave the convent.
A July 1959 Los Angeles Times article reporting on the film's New York opening stated that that The Nun's Story was "farther from Hollywood's beaten track than anything the New York critics can remember. Not alone because the story of a nun's life and inner struggle is rare on the screen, but even more in the way it is told." The New York Times review described the first hour of the film as "in the nature of a documentary picture of how a young woman becomes a nun." The Los Angeles Times article stated, "We come to learn the real meaning and purpose of the vows of chastity, poverty, silence and obedience which are the later guidelines of the nun in her vocation, and out in the world." The New York Times review added, "Through the mouth of a mother superior...[the film] articulates the philosophy and spiritual stress in the formation of a nun-the purposes of the rules of silence, obedience, poverty and chastity, and the point of the most difficult surrender of liberty, memories and will."
About the film's ending, the New York Times review stated, "Mr. Zinnemann has made this off-beat drama describe a parabola of spiritual afflatus and deflation that ends in a strange sort of defeat...a woman gains but also loses her soul, spends and exhausts her devotion to an ideal she finds she cannot hold."
The Nun's Story marked the feature film debut of Colleen Dewhurst. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to Ben-Hur. Hepburn and Robert Anderson were nominated for Best Actress and Best Screenplay Based on Another Medium, respectively, but lost to Simone Signoret and Neil Paterson for Room at the Top. Other nominations were: Fred Zinnemann (Best Director), Franz Planer (Best Cinematography), Walter Thompson (Best Film Editing), Franz Waxman (Best Musical Score) and George Grove (Best Sound), but all lost to Ben-Hur. The Nun's Story was shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where it won the Grand Prix Cine Revue Award. The picture also received a Certificate of Recognition from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, according to contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items. According to a November 1966 Los Angeles Times news item, Hepburn stated that "Sister Luke" was her favorite movie role.
Voted Best Director and Best Actress by the 1959 New York Film Critics Association.
Voted Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress by the 1959 National Board of Review.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 New York Times Film Critics.
Released in United States 1959
Released in United States on Video March 23, 1988
Film is based on a true story.
Released in United States 1959
Released in United States on Video March 23, 1988