National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Dorothy Day Hits the Big Screen in ‘Entertaining Angels’

BY David Finnigan

September 22, 1996 Issue | Posted 10/9/97 at 1:00 PM


AFTER SIX YEARS of prayer and hard work, Paulist Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, is bringing his 110-minute cinematic vision of the life of Catholic Worker Founder Dorothy Day to the big screen. But he's going it alone, without the hype and fanfare that accompany most of Hollywood's releases.

Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, premiered earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival, where it earned some critical praise and international interest, including an invitation for a screening at a Greek film festival. It will open on Sept. 27 in one theater per city in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. Oct. 11 will mark the second phase of Father Kieser's independent “roll-out” release with Entertaining Angels opening in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego. Other cities include Montreal, Detroit, Washington, Dallas, Denver, Miami; by Oct. 25, it will come to Cincinnati, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Jose, Calif. and Kansas City, Mo. Ultimately, Father Kieser hopes to sell television rights and arrange for overseas distribution, as well as video sales. The priest hopes to tap into the same market-including Catholic schools and groups-that made his 1988 film, Romero, a modest success.

Father Kieser broke even on Romero, ultimately recouping the $3.5 million invested in the story of the Salvadoran bishop who was slain for championing the poor. Father Kieser financed his current $4.5 million movie largely with Catholic money, and with little direct support from Hollywood. “We're doing it ourselves and, we're relying on a lot of Church support,” he told the Register. Distributing it himself means, “we can target it, leave it in cities longer, fine-tune it.”

Father Kieser said his movie “is more relevant than ever, given President Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill. We're going to have more poor … more people on the street.”

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference is helping promote Entertaining Angels. The Catholic Communications Campaign gave the film $228,000, in funding, in addition to plugs in its newsletter and on its toll-free movie review line. In October, an Entertaining Angels flier will be included in the Church's Campaign for Human Development (CHD) annual appeal fundraising kit which goes out to 40,000 priests across the United States. The national CHD newsletter will include information on creating diocesan benefit screenings.

Paulist Father Bruce Nieli, the NCCB's director for evangelization, can't say enough about the project: “I would love every Catholic in America in the United States to see this movie.” He has already shown it to NCCB staffers. He wants diocesan staffs to “promote it in their secretariats, raise a critical mass of viewing audiences in the highways and byways of U.S. Catholicism. I am promoting this movie to enflesh evangelization, by saying, ‘Here's someone who put it all together.’”

But bringing Day's story to the big screen didn't come easily. Some 30 stars-including Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster-turned down the lead, citing scheduling conflicts, disinterest or an unwillingness to work for Father Kieser's traditional union scale wages. “I had another actress say, ‘I love the script but not enough to cut my price by 96 percent,’” Father Kieser said.

No big-name director was attracted to the project either, and Father Kieser was unsuccessful in his attempts to attract a Hollywood studio to produce the script, or later, to distribute the film. (Paramount did let him shoot street scenes of 1930s New York on their back lot.)

“We looked at it, we looked at it twice,” said Barry Riordan, a Catholic and president of Warner Bros. Distribution who successfully marketed the 1986 film The Mission. Riordan said he took the Dorothy Day movie to his video division executives, asking if they could sell about 50,000 copies of it. If they said yes, Riordan thought he might be able to give Entertaining Angels a limited theatrical release to jump start video store sales. They said no.

“I have been rejected so many times,” Father Kieser said. “Who likes to be rejected? This has been a faith journey from the beginning. This has been the most difficult movie I've ever made.”

Michael Rhodes of the canceled, Christian-themed CBS series, Christy, came on board as director. Irish-born, Long Island, N.Y.-bred Moira Kelly, known for her roles in Chaplin, The Cutting Edge and With Honors, signed on to play Dorothy Day. Martin Sheen co-stars as Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin.

Father Kieser sees the obstacles to making the film as providential. His interview mantra is that he didn't get a big-name studio, director or star. He then talks of how he got a director and lead who weren't big but who made for magic on screen. He hopes God is as providential in distribution and marketing.

John Wells, executive producer of NBC's E.R.wrote the script. But the final version has the imprint of Father Kieser's vision of Day's life. “I basically made it for secular people, I wanted to reach the unbelieving,” he said.

Entertaining Angels is a bookend story opening in 1963 with Day in jail on a protest charge, cradling a drug addict in their shared cell. It ends with her holding the addict, gently singing Amazing Grace.

In between, the movie covers Day's pre-Catholic life in 1917 as a suffragist and writer for the old New York socialist newspaper, The Call. She had an abortion. Scarred by that, she retreated to a beach house. Anun helps her convert. By the Depression-era 1930s, Day is back in Manhattan. With Peter Maurin, they start The Catholic Worker newspaper and set-up the first Catholic Worker soup kitchen.

The movie doesn't chronicle Day's entire life. Her later work with Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement or her Vietnam War protests aren't covered and the film makes no mention of the Catholic Worker split over World War II. Ignoring Day's post-Pearl Harbor pacifist call for U.S. non-aggression, half the Catholic Workers enlisted. The other half went to conscientious objector camps. The split caused Day's newspaper to lose two-thirds of its circulation, as it was dropped by parishes grieving over altar boys-turned-soldiers who died at Corregidor or the Bataan Death March.

Father Kieser grew up around World War II heroes. “I'm not a total pacifist, as Dorothy was,” he said. “But I do think we need to explore and use non-violent conflict resolution.”

At showings in Toronto and New York, secular journalists from MTV and the Village Voice praised the film. Critics from Catholic magazines like America and Commonweal, apparently more familiar with Day's life, had reservations, wondering why Father Kieser did not cover all periods of Day's life. The Christian magazine Sojourners' lukewarm review this month said audiences not familiar with Day will find the movie, “a good chronicle of this amazing woman's early life … for those looking for a profoundly moving or enlightening cinematic experience, Entertaining Angels falls too short….”

“I think you miss the whole mystery, the whole subtlety of her conversion,” said Robert Ellsberg, editor of Orbis Books, who lived with Day in a Catholic Worker house. Day's actual conversion, he said, began with a copy of the Baltimore Catechism given to her by a traditional nun, not the more modern-talking nun in the movie. “I found it odd that the nun was so clearly post-Vatican II in her style of ministry,” Ellsberg said.

Other Catholics have embraced this partial biography. Shown at an August Pax Christi convention in Cleveland, the movie ended, the lights came up, and the audience sang, Amazing Grace. Catholic Workers came up to Father Kieser with bouquets of roses. “I felt like an opera singer,” he said.

To those Dorothy Day aficionados complaining that the story is incomplete, the priest challenges them to put away their rarefied view of “Saint Dorothy” and just watch the movie, released a year before what would have been Day's 100th birthday.

“The whole movie doesn't quite fit the icon,” he said. The Catholic critics, he said, “almost expected that I made a documentary. I didn't make a documentary. I made a drama. I had to get inside Dorothy's head and I'm allowed theatrical license.

“Many devoutly believing people are very critical of what Hollywood produces. Okay. You've been cursing the darkness. I would like to think that we've given some light, and I hope the people are going to gravitate toward it…. Not only going to see the picture but inviting their non-Catholic friends, their relatives, their parish groups to go as a group, and then use it as a discussion tool about the Gospel in 1996, not for a night or a week but for months….”

David Finnigan is based in Los Angeles. He was an unpaid extra on the set of Entertaining Angels.