Monday, April 21, 2014

Sister Act


NUNSENSE
Eureka!  I have found it! The project that will catapult me to the top of the pop culture heap. I knew that if I just trusted in God, it would happen. Joseph, my manager, called me this morning. There's a new show in Rome, a spectacular hit - Mother Teresa: The Musical. He's in negotiations now to acquire the American rights for me with an eye to a Broadway opening in the spring. Playing such a beloved icon is bound to get me the cover of every major entertainment magazine and the biggest Broadway opening since Florenz Ziegfeld presented Showboat some years ago. Of course, some changes will have to be made to suit the needs of my public. We'll definitely have a more youthful and statuesque Mother Teresa, not that withered crone. That blue and white dish towel has got to go. I have a call in to Bob Mackie to come up with some truly stunning designs. I'm thinking something in chartreuse. 

I spent the morning on the telephone starting to assemble a creative team and then had to deal with Mrs. Jerry, the housekeeper. She states that there's something very wrong here at Chateau Maine as objects will simply not stay where she's put them. I think the poor dear has been at the cooking sherry again, but she does work for $1.85 an hour so I don't spend too much time worrying about it. As long as she doesn't fall and break a hip on my terrazzo. I asked her to give me specific examples and she launched into some long winded story about the Emmet Kelly figurines in Norman's old room flying about which, of course, is absolute nonsense.
 

I poured myself a nice Mai Tai and went off to the home theater in search of inspiration for Mother Teresa and, in flipping through the film collection, found an ancient copy of
 Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg from 1992. As musical nun films are somewhat few and far between and I had seen The Sound of Music relatively recently, I decided it was a sign from heaven and settled in for some research as to how the cloister and the chorus might be best joined in musical entertainment. 

Sister Act
 was originally developed by comedy writer Paul Rudnick as a vehicle for Bette Midler. When Bette passed on the material, it was taken and rewritten by multiple additional writers (the screenplay eventually being attributed to the pseudonymous Joseph Howard). By the time Whoopi Goldberg signed on, little of the original script was left, besides the general concept. In the final film, Whoopi plays a not terribly successful Reno night club singer, Deloris Van Cartier, who leads a Supremes like trio in a second rate casino. Whoopi, who does her own singing, can carry a tune, but can't really sell the Motown girl group sound she's trying to belt out. Deloris is seeing casino boss Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel), who's being tracked by Reno detective Souther (the aptly named Bill Nunn) and, one day, she stumbles into a mob meeting where Vince is having a stoolie whacked. Deloris panics and goes to the police and agrees to testify. Detective Souther decides to hide her in the last place anyone would look for a foul mouthed licentious lounge singer, Saint Catherine's convent in San Francisco, where she takes the identity of Sister Mary Clarence. 

Deloris is a typical fish out of water, especially when dressed in a Carmelite outfit. She quickly runs afoul of the Mother Superior (Maggie Smith at her most droll) but finds allies in the giggly Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy), the crusty Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes) and the wide eyed novice, Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena). When Deloris proves ill suited to the contemplative life, Mother Superior gives her charge of the nun's choir thinking that music might be the one thing she can manage. Using a little movie magic, Deloris quickly transforms them from a bunch of tone deaf losers into a sparkling group who give socko performances of hymns and Motown standards, all with a Catholic flair. Big hits include 'My God' to the tune of 'My Girl' and 'I Will Follow Him'. Will the evil mobsters discover her hiding place? Will the other nuns invade a Reno casino in full habit to rescue her? Will the choir have a chance to perform for the visiting pontiff? Such questions are easily answered by students of Hollywood studio comedy.
 

Despite the somewhat shaky premise, the warmed-over writing, and sequences that just seem out of place, the whole project works. It works for two reasons, spot on casting and superb direction. The cast is a dream and they dig into their roles, milking every line for every laugh they can get. Whoopi is at her best in such larger than life roles where real human emotions are unnecessary. Deloris isn't too far from her Oscar winning Oda Mae Brown in
 Ghost. The minute she puts on the habit, you know you're in for a rollicking good time. Maggie Smith is more than a match for her. No one can draw out a drily comic line like the Dame. Her timing is masterful and her delivery of even simple phrases like 'Try to blend in' (to a group of nuns invading a casino) are a hoot. This was the first film that got Kathy Najimy attention as a comic actress as her buoyantly bouncy nun prattles along trying to steal scenes; she's only topped by Mary Wickes, a scene stealer since 1942's The Man Who Came To Dinner. The choir is filled with other aging character actresses like Ruth Kobart, Carmen Zapata and Beth Fowler. 

The director was Emile Ardolino, a man who had an instinctive flair for matching music, comedy and a touch of romance. In this film, as in other films of his such as
 Dirty Dancing and Chances Are, he creates a fluid blend of genres that transcends all of the individual elements to become a lovely souffl√© of film craft. His early death from HIV was a real loss to the Hollywood community. 

The film was shot on location in Reno and San Francisco, with St. Paul's in the Noe Valley subbing for St. Catherine's. The attempts of the art department to turn that solidly upper middle class area into an inner city slum are somewhat amusing to those who know San Francisco well as are the shots of Reno using the Nevada Club as a hip and happening casino.
 

Sequin dresses. Purple mink. Dead limo driver. Gratuitous kitchen chase scene. Nun car repair. Nuns in biker bar. Nuns playing the slots. Daisy alarm clock. Gratuitous tomato swiping. Tambourine playing. Emotional blackmail of helicopter pilot. Applauding pope.


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