Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dolores Hart: Diary of a Cloistered Starlet

I learned the other day that former actress Dolores Hart, who walked away from her promising Hollywood movie career in 1963 and became a cloistered Benedictine nun, will have her memoirs published next week.  From Ignatius Press, "The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows" promises to be an interesting and insightful story of one of the most inspirational individuals ever to work in the movies.  Hart was always a talented and intelligent actress during her short stay in Hollywood.  She projected a forthright decency and accessible warmth throughout her brief career.  I always liked her acknowledgement in an ABC 20/20 interview she gave a few years ago where she said she understood why people might be intrigued with her life story and did not find the public to be intruding upon her privacy because "Once you have decided to become a public figure, you've made an agreement with your audience and it's a lifetime agreement.  So, even if you pull away, there is a part of you that you can't just say 'You no longer belong (to them).'  You do."  I was impressed with how savvy Dolores Hart remained about her previous life as an actress and how she didn't have an unrealistic outlook about herself and the world at large.  I always felt that Hart could teach a course to her peers on humility, career management, and how to maintain a level of interest and intrigue about oneself.

While none of her films could be considered masterpieces, as accomplished and entertaining as they were, they were good enough to demonstrate that Hart was an actress of considerable depth and promise.  Probably her most notable movie role was the lead in the Spring Break comedy/drama "Where the Boys Are" (1960).  While Hart might get asked in her interviews more about her starring roles opposite Elvis Presley in "Loving You" (1957) and "King Creole" (1958), "Where the Boys Are" is probably the quintessential Dolores Hart movie.  In it, Hart's character demonstrates qualities of courage, compassion, and confusion that, based on recent interviews she has given, echo themes and events from her own real life.  I am not saying that Hart was playing herself in "Where the Boys Are," or that the movie is based on her life, but it is clear that her role as Merritt Andrews allowed Hart an opportunity to address issues she would have to grapple with in real life as she forged an independent path different from other actresses of her era.  She was probably attracted to the role for those reasons.

In an excellent interview she gave two years ago to Entertainment Weekly, Hart revealed herself to be an introspective, insightful individual who openly acknowledged the doubts she occasionally had as to whether becoming a nun was the right decision for her.  The interview detailed her long-term friendship with her ex-fiance, with whom she remained very close with until he passed away recently, and how she occasionally wonders what her life would be like if she had married him.  In so doing, Hart demonstrated a candor and accessibility as a human being that is rare in someone who used to be an actress, a profession where people are perpetually putting on a facade.  She showed that, sometimes, the decision that is right for you is not always the easiest or most expedient one and impressed me with the courage of her convictions.  In discussing her continued role as a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy, and how she reconciles herself with films containing sexually explicit content, Hart pointedly opined how "Movies reflect the time.  It's not so much that movies are ugly, it's the ugliness of the time that is reflected.  To me that indicates what we have to pray for and pray about...When I see Natalie Portman masturbating [in Black Swan], I hear the kids come in and talk about their problems with masturbating...What offends me is, Is the movie itself going to leave people without hope?  You have to help them know that there is a way through their grief and their pain."  With her candor and frankness, Hart demonstrates how cognizant she is about issues that continue to affect people in their day-to-day life and does not possess an unrealistically idealized view of how people should behave in matters of sexuality and other concerns of importance.

All of this reminds me of the issues and challenges that face Hart's character in "Where the Boys Are"  Like Hart, Merritt is an intelligent and insightful young woman from a modest Illinois background.  She has an IQ of 138, but (unlike Hart, who was successful in Hollywood) is struggling to get passing grades in college.  Merritt's academic struggles reflect her character's uncertainty as to whether this highly competitive environment is the one that is right for her, a conflict that was similar to Hart's real-life struggle between choosing the monastery, or a career in Hollywood.  (Merritt's academic struggles, as with Hart's struggles with whether to keep her Hollywood career, also demonstrate that she had no sense of entitlement about herself despite her beauty and intelligence.  Nothing was handed to her on a silver platter because she worked hard for what she had.)  Nevertheless, Merritt always comes across as an assertive and forthright individual who has a refreshingly enlightened view of the society she lives in, qualities which Hart's interviews have indicated she possesses as well.  In the beginning of the movie, we find Merritt debating with an uptight Courtship and Marriage professor whether college co-eds should engage in premarital sex. As the professor challenges her viewpoint, Merritt explains, "Well, frankly, I thought the text was a little old fashioned.  It didn't have much to do with modern college life as far as I could see...Well, take the discussion on emotional involvement on the first date.  In this day and age, if a girl doesn't become a little emotionally involved on the first date, it's going to be her last.  With that man anyhow.  Honestly, Dr. if a girl doesn't make out with a man once in awhile she might as well leave campus.  She's considered practically anti-social."

When the professor challenges her to explain her definition of "make-out" for the benefit of the class, Merritt nervously responds, "Well, Dr. Raunch.  I think they know already.  Making out is what used to be called necking.  Before that it was petting.  And going back to early American days, it was also known as bundling.  It's all the same game....Well we're supposed to be intelligent, so why not get down to the giant Jackpot issue?  Like should a girl or she should not under any circumstances play house before marriage?...My opinion is Yes!"  Merritt's seemingly radical views results in her being sent to speak with the Dean, but later in the film, when Merritt expresses concern for her friend Melanie's (Yvette Mimieux) rampant drinking and promiscuity once they arrive in Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, she qualifies her earlier statement.  When Melanie gets upset after Merritt points out to her that she claims to have fallen in love with two different boys she has met within days of arriving for break, Merritt explains to Melanie, "I'm just trying to see that you don't get caught in some crazy merry go round....Since when am I the last word?  And what did (my opinion in class) have to do with you anyway?  I was talking about people in general.  Not kids who go out and get drunk together."

In so doing, Merritt demonstrates how she is cognizant of the realities concerning sexuality and relationships facing modern individuals.  She acknowledges that notions of abstinence do not comport with modern society and that people should have the freedom to make the right choices for themselves, which includes engaging in premarital sex.  However, in her dealings with Melanie and trying to help her friend cope with her promiscuity, Merritt also demonstrates her belief that individuals who enjoy sexual freedom must still act with common sense and personal responsibility in how they conduct themselves.  They need to have a clear understanding of what they are getting themselves into, how they are getting into it, and what they can expect as the outcome of their actions.  At one point Merritt says "I'm not much for the drinking bit.  I'm not being prudish.  I just don't believe in getting smashed.  It's sort of juvenile, not really worth the effort."  This healthy balance between open-minded compassion and understanding, combined with sensible reasoning in terms of personal behavior, echoes the opinions that Dolores Hart expressed about modern-day sexuality and how to help young people cope with the issues facing them that she commented on in the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly interview.

In the excellent, Oscar-nominated documentary "God is the Bigger Elvis" (2011), which in my opinion should have won that year, Hart discusses how she reconciled her Catholic faith with being an actress in Hollywood "because sexually you could be aroused by boys.  And you could get involved sexually with men.  And my leading star was Elvis."  Hart explains that she was able to come to terms with this state of confusion by seeking counsel with the Reverend Mother at the Regina Laudis Monastery that she eventually joined.  Hart recalls that the Reverend Mother helped her cope with her conflicted feelings by explaining to her that "Well why not?  You're a girl...Chastity doesn't mean that you don't appreciate what God created.  Chastity says 'Use it well.'"  As such, the rational and intelligent, yet human and vulnerable Merritt, appears to have much in common with the personal views of Dolores Hart.

In the documentary, we get to meet Hart's former fiance and lifelong friend Don Robinson, an architect/real estate executive with whom she had been dating for 5 years before she joined the Monastery.  As Robinson explains, "The moment I met her, I knew that you could relax with her and have fun with her.  On our first date, we had dinner for three hours.  And, at the end of our dinner, I asked her to marry me.  She said, 'Would you give me some time?  And let's just date?'  I said, 'I'll give you all the time you want.'  She happened to be a Catholic and I happen to be a Catholic.  I knew in my heart, I could feel it was all there what I was looking for.  We dated on and off for 5 years and became engaged."  As I listened to Robinson's description of his relationship with Hart, I couldn't help but think back on her scenes with (the underrated) George Hamilton's Ryder Smith character in "Where the Boys Are."

In the movie, Merritt and Ryder establish a relationship built on mutual respect and intellectual engagement, not just physical attraction and stereotypical notions of romantic love.  Merritt and Ryder spar and debate with one another, which helps to underscore the equality of their relationship.  Ryder is attracted to Merritt's sophisticated qualities and, even after she turns him down when he propositions her, he still is interested in her because she has sincerely engaged him on an emotional level.  Clearly, Merritt has put Ryder at ease so that he can be relaxed and honest around her and, as such, brings out the best in him.  At one point, Ryder admits to Merritt "I don't know why I waste my time with you.  I guess maybe it's because I like you.  Funny, that's the first time I ever said that to a girl."  When Merritt expresses doubt that that was the first time Ryder ever told a girl he liked her, he explains, "Oh, I said I loved them, but I never said I liked them," underscoring how Ryder respects Merritt as an intelligent, forthright individual and not just another romantic fling.

At the end of the film, when Merritt and Ryder try to make sense of their deepening feelings for one another, Ryder says "Look, I don't have the answers any more than you.  But for us, anyhow, it's not the way we started out.  I'm sure of that now.  I don't want to know you just for a few days or a Spring vacation.  I'd like to know you for a long time, Merritt."  By not opting for a quick and meaningless fling with Ryder during her Spring Break, Merritt has laid the groundwork for a potentially serious long term relationship with him.  In so doing, Ryder's feelings for Merritt seem to echo the feelings Don Robinson felt for Dolores Hart after their first date, and how he was ready to think of her from a long term perspective for his life, as well as how Hart maintained his interest by not immediately accepting his marriage proposal and suggesting instead that they date so they could get better acquainted.  It's clear that both the fictional Ryder and the real-life Don Robinson were drawn to the integrity, character, and substance of what the fictional Merritt and her real-life portrayer Dolores Hart had to offer them in life. 

When I watch "Where the Boys Are" now, I can't help but think of how Hart invested the role of Merritt with enough of her personal qualities and attributes so that we can see the sort of person she was at the time and why a man of obvious substance like Don Robinson never got over her, never married, and remained her close friend until the end of his life.  Robinson appeared to realize that he could never expect nor hope to meet Hart's equal.  A lot of times, actors are not anything like the roles they play and, like I said earlier, I'm not trying to suggest Dolores Hart was simply playing herself when she portrayed Merritt Andrews in "Where the Boys Are."  But I sense that Hart personally identified with what Merritt felt and experienced in the movie to enough of a degree that she gave a performance that went beyond good acting.  She created a genuine human being who still maintains relevance and interest more than half a century later.  I think the personal struggles experienced by Merritt in terms of making the right choices for herself, more than her purported expression of sexual freedom and liberation for young women, is why Dolores Hart's work in "Where the Boys Are" remains so intriguing.  As an audience, while watching Merritt, we get a sense of the sort of introspective self-reflection and challenges that Dolores Hart must have faced in her own life, and how she was able to address them with courage and honesty so that she made the right personal decisions for herself.  For these reasons, in my opinion, Dolores Hart remains one of Hollywood's biggest success stories, and one of the brightest stars who ever graced the movies. 


  1. Thanks for the retrospective on Dolores Hart career and her viewpoints and perceptive analysis of the state of modern films. Hollywood's loss was certainly Holy Orders gain!

  2. Loved the essay and your take on Hart and the role in Where's the Boys Are.

    I do have a question. Since the contract system was still in force at the time I wonder if Hart had any real choice about doing the film?

    1. I am not sure, but as I understand it, Dolores Hart was under personal contract to Hal Wallis, based at Paramount. "Where the Boys Are" was an MGM movie, not made by Wallis or released by Paramount, so I imagine for her to be loaned out for it, either Wallis or Hart (or both, depending on the terms of her contract with him) had to agree to it. She wasn't under contract to MGM and it wasn't an assignment for her to complete the way it was for Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, George Hamilton, Jim Hutton, and Connie Francis, who I believe were I under contract to MGM and had to do what they were given.

  3. I have a question about the photograph you have of Dolores Hart and Don Robinson. I know it was taken at the Academy Awards, but do you know what year that was?

    1. Sorry, but I don't know what year it was taken.

    2. I believe that was 1961. I think they met in late 1960 and that pic would have been the 1961 Oscars.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.