Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends
By Mary Claire Kendall
Franciscan Media, 2015
224 pages, $16.99
As far as I know, Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends is unique in recounting the conversion stories of a collection of Hollywood stars to the Catholic faith.
Author Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based columnist, details 13 spiritual biographies of famous men and women who acted or directed in Hollywood in the middle decades of the last century. If you have any interest in Hollywood, particularly in its heyday up to the 1960s, you will most certainly recognize their names.
Even movie buffs are likely to find some of the information here new to them or cast in a new light, since Kendall’s focus is on her subjects’ varied progressions along the path to the Catholic Church. The book’s foreword was written by Mother Dolores Hart of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, who herself was a movie star — not a convert, but a Catholic who responded with great generosity to God’s call to a religious vocation. She is most certainly the only abbess who ever co-starred with Elvis Presley!
To whet your appetite for reading, I will just mention a few of the stars you will encounter in this fascinating book: Gary Cooper, Jane Wyman (once married to Ronald Reagan), Susan Hayward and Patricia Neal. In a very moving chapter, Kendall recounts the troubled story of Betty Hutton (of Annie Get Your Gun fame).
This is a book that truly is hard to put down. It also gives us hope, as we approach the onset of the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, that even the greatest sinners (as evidenced by the stories told above) can receive God’s forgiveness — and that even morally challenging professions such as acting cannot block the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Kendall is very clear in her conclusion: The power and force of Hollywood’s lifestyle — the lure of stardom, celebrity and, of course, riches — are hard to counteract, but grace can make it possible. The stories fittingly dramatize the downward spiritual drag of Tinseltown and the often great effort needed to cooperate with grace in counteracting it.
But in spite of the glamour, the men and women who appear in this book were ordinary humans after all, complete with the basic human desires for love and security that we all feel. Many fell prey to the same pitfalls and temptations common to people on our side of the movie screen; and they were in need of the same forgiveness and saving help from God that we all seek throughout the course of our lives. This book reveals something of the action of grace working in the human soul and also stokes a desire for a Renaissance of healthy Hollywood movies made by men and women of great talent and faith. Kendall intends to follow up this compelling look at the Hollywood of old with another one on the surprising number of Catholic actors, directors and financiers who are at work in today’s Hollywood.
There is a great need for many Catholics to become involved in the arts, including on stage and screen. Perhaps in time we will see a change in what passes for entertainment. Until then, my hat is off to Kendall for her fascinating and inspiring look at an aspect of Hollywood not well enough publicized.
Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and research
fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.