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Pause, just for a moment, and think about how often you have seen actors praying on screen. Not often, I wager. There are some examples, however, and it does seem that prayers uttered on celluloid are answered, if sometimes in curious ways. 

Take Marion Morrison, better known to the world as John Wayne. He was a man who could lay claim to be being one of the greatest screen actors of all time. His popularity, despite some sections of the media’s increasing dislike of his politics, remained high from the 1940s through to the last decade of his life. When it came to religion, the Duke described himself as a ‘Cardiac Catholic’ – one, that is, who knows that Catholicism is the true religion, but will only be received into the Church on the point of death. This light-hearted confession seems to have hidden a more serious intent. For it was indeed, in 1979, when he lay dying that a priest was called and Wayne, at last, became a Catholic.

Wayne prayed on screen a number of times – albeit reluctantly. In the classic, The Searchers (1956), after burying his dead relatives, an impromptu funeral service is held. As the praying drones on, Wayne becomes increasingly impatient, before finally declaring that that is enough and rides off to avenge his kinsfolk. Was that prayer? Maybe not, but for anyone who knows the ending, there is redemption of sorts when finally Wayne’s obsessive revenge is superseded, defeated even, by a recognition of a deeper love.

A few years earlier, in Red River (1948) he had repeatedly buried the dead, a work of mercy, followed by a brief reading of Scripture, mostly from the Book of Job, over the makeshift graves. There is little evidence of any other attempt to pray in his many films — although there is a strikingly religious quality to one of Wayne’s speeches in The Alamo (1960). In one scene, early on in the movie, knowing the Alamo defenders are hopelessly outnumbered, he talks of those gathered at the former mission preferring to die for an ideal rather than walking around ‘alive on the outside’ but ‘dead on the inside’. The movie was Wayne’s: he produced it, directed it, and starred in it; one can’t help but think that this speech was a personal statement of belief, one curiously reminiscent of words spoken by many a martyr-saint.

The moment of truth, so to speak, comes, however, in one of his most derided and briefest roles: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). On the way to Calvary, Wayne plays the centurion in charge of the crucifixion. He snarls at his troops to keep the procession moving, but has only one real spoken line. When the clouds darken and rain pelts the hill of Calvary, he looks up at the Cross and the figure on it, before saying: 'Truly, this was the Son of God'. Twelve years later, it was, in essence, these same lines he repeated when dying at last a Catholic.

Another example of prayer on camera is that of Vincent Price. This time, it takes the form of a ‘death bed’ conversion on screen that brought, perhaps, a real life one off it. Long before Price became the Crown Prince of Horror, he had a career playing all sorts of roles, from Simon Templar through to various character parts. Never quite an A-list movie star, like so many actors, Vincent Price acted to make a living. Something his prodigious output born of necessity testifies to, even if, during this time, he never quite made a name for himself. One role that brought him to the attention of a mainstream audience was in The Song of Bernadette (1943).

This biopic of Saint Bernadette won four Oscars and was a huge box office smash. The film was wonderfully cast. This was particularly so with Price as the sceptical Imperial Prosecutor, a man of logic cynically disdainful of the emotional frenzy of the crowds flocking to Lourdes in the hope of a miracle. He disappears from view about halfway through the movie, only to reappear at its end. By the time he has returned to Lourdes, Bernadette has left for the convent at Nevers. He is by then a much-changed man, however, dying of throat cancer. Less sure of things, more frightened of what future, if any, is left him. It seems at first that he will die in his rationalist creed. In one of the movie’s final scenes, we watch as he wanders through the grotto amongst the pilgrims gathered to pray at a candle-lit vigil. Incredulous of what he observes, he is envious too. At last, he comes to the gates of the Sanctuary, and, as he does so, looks up to the heavens before his final lines: 'Pray for me, Bernadette.' Thirty years later, Price was received into the Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that prayer is not just petition or praise, but can also be simply the prayer of the body. This throws up all sorts of possibilities when applied to film, especially if an actor is playing the role of a holy man or woman, a religious or a priest. There have been many portrayals of holy priests on screen, some better than others. One actor playing such a role is of particular interest. 

When filming at a small French village in the 1950s, at the end of a day’s shooting, still in costume, an actor playing a priest was walking back to his hotel. As he did so, a young boy drew alongside and took his hand, proceeding to speak to the Abbé with a confidence and intimacy that impressed the actor. In fact, it impressed him so much that, by the time the boy had bid the ‘priest’ good night, the incident had left an indelible mark. The actor in question was Alec Guinness; two years later, in 1956, he was received into the Catholic Church, often citing his experience filming Father Brown as decisive in that spiritual journey.

So what of playing a saint? Dolores Hart was already a Catholic convert when she was chosen to play the role of St. Clare in the 1961 film, Francis of Assisi. The movie was filmed on location in Italy. Then a rising star, it was an important role for Hart. She was of that era when actors ‘lived’ the part they were playing, and so, for months, she really did ‘live with’ the medieval saint. During a break in filming, the cast and crew traveled to Rome to be presented to Pope John XXIII. When it came to the female star being presented, Hart introduced herself as the actress playing Clare. The Pontiff looked at the woman before him, only to correct these words by declaring in Italian: ‘No, you are Clare’. The moment could be dismissed as trivial, but it was to have a profound effect upon the actress. Soon after, she gave up the glamour of Hollywood for the hard graft of seeking holiness, and entered an enclosed Benedictine monastery where she remains to this day.

If inhabiting a saintly role is so powerful, is the reverse also true? Does the playing of evil characters leave a mark? Bela Lugosi was born and raised a Catholic in Hungary. He left his native land, and his religion, after becoming embroiled in the failed 1919 Hungarian Revolution. Thereafter, he travelled to Germany where his first acting was in the occult–saturated Berlin cinema of the time. Eventually, he made his way to America, but in a sense his homeland and its folklore followed him. In New York, he played the role of Dracula on stage. It was a success; when he went to Hollywood to make the film version of Dracula he became an international star.

What is sometimes forgotten is that this was a serious artist, one who, in his native land, was a renowned Shakespearean actor. Lugosi saw the part of the Transylvanian count as simply one role amongst many he wished to play. But, in the end, it was never to let him go. For the next two decades, in a variety of guises, descending artistically at every turn, he played the role over and over again. Towards the end of his life, he was asked about the character. His reply was that it was a curse — one that had drained the blood from all his other artistic possibilities. In 1956, while playing the vampire count in the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space, he died. The actor’s last scene captured on film is of him dressed again in the cape of the vampire standing in front of an open grave.  Lugosi was buried in that same black cape; even in death, it seems the role claimed him.

Sometimes roles on screen that seem to attack the faith can have the opposite effect though. Take the case of the patron saint of actors, Saint Genesius. He lived in 3rd century Rome, and was part of an acting troupe that openly mocked the then persecuted minority known as Christians. A play was to be staged satirizing the beliefs of that despised group. Genesius was given a part that would mock the sacrament of baptism. When the play was performed, the young actor lay centre stage and started mockingly to recite the words of baptism. By the end of his recitation, however, something had changed. From that moment on, Genesius was a believing Christian. Converted by the words recited onstage, that role was to end not just his acting career, but also his life. Soon after, he went willingly to his death for this newfound faith — no longer playing a role, but living it, on that day and, indeed, forever more.