Fifty-six years ago, the paths of Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley crossed and created an unforgettable moment in movie history. Years later, the two stars took dramatically different paths. Presley died 36 years ago today, while Hart quietly slipped away from Hollywood…
In her new autobiography, “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows,” Hart recounts her fascinating life story, which began in earnest at age 4 when she and her mother moved to California to be with her father Bert Hicks, a rising actor signed to an MGM stock player contract. In a recent interview discussing her book, Dolores told me about her life as a young girl growing up in 1940s Tinseltown.
“You build in your mind, as I did, a kind of sense that Hollywood is a place of Heaven,” Hart, now 74, recalled. “Everything is beautiful, all the food looks wonderful, the clothes are always clean – it was that image. But then, getting closer to it, I think that that period of making pictures was a Golden Era, it was a naïve period of life for making films.”
Not yet 10 years old, Hart was entranced by the marquee lights and brightly colored posters of a theater near her Hollywood home, and knew she wanted to be an actress like her father. In fact, she was already hamming it up in front of the industry’s elite.
“I remember going with my father to see Vincent Price when he did a movie, and meeting him,” Hart recounted. “My father had said to me, as we were driving up, ‘”Shock” is a lousy film. It really stinks.’ But I knew he was so full of himself. So, we got onto the set and Mr. Price comes up, dressed in the gorgeous way he did with that beard that looked like it had been done in a lady’s shop, and [my dad] introduced me, ‘Mr. Price, this is my daughter Dolores.’ And I said, ‘Hello, Mr. Price. My daddy says “Shock” stank.’”
“He looked at me and said, ‘My dear, finally someone has said the truth,’” Hart added with a laugh.
Just a decade after her encounter with Price, Dolores found herself on a movie set once again. This time, however, she was making her aforementioned movie debut opposite Elvis Presley – at the height of Elvis-mania – in the 1957 musical drama “Loving You.” And to Hart’s utter shock, her very first scene ever would feature a kiss between she and Elvis, the first on-screen kiss of his legendary film career.
“I couldn’t believe it, that they would start there. Even before I knew him!” Hart said, and estimated that “100 people” watched director Hal Kanter explain exactly where he wanted his actors positioned for the fateful smooch. When she and Presley finally locked lips, Kanter stopped the scene. “Oh, my gosh,” Dolores recalled thinking, “How could I have ruined a kiss? This is bad news.”
As it turned out, it was her ears, which were blushing bright red, that had disrupted the scene. (After all, it was Elvis’ first film in Technicolor.) After a quick ear cover-up by makeup supervisor Wally Westmore, Dolores was back in Elvis’ arms for a second take. The kiss was, again, interrupted by Kanter.
“Get Westmore back over here,” Hart remembered him saying. “Elvis’ ears are turning red!”
In her book, Hart paints a kind, gentle, relatively normal picture of the charismatic music icon, whom she calls “soft-spoken and polite” and “a true Southern gentleman.” And while she admits she was not infatuated with Presley the way so many young women at her age were, Dolores says he was as magnetic a person as you’d ever meet.
“I watched every scene he did in the film, whether I had a part in it or I didn’t,” Hart told me. “Especially when he was singing, he was electric. And I just wanted to embody, imbibe the freedom of spirit that he brought to his movement. I never thought anything he did was improper or bad – it was sexual – but it was sexual in a very free and exciting way.”
While Hart reflects fondly on the King of Rock and Roll, with whom she reunited for “King Creole” a year later, she hints subtly at her suspicion of Presley’s infamously controlling manager Colonel Tom Parker. According to Dolores, Elvis wanted to branch out as an actor, but moving away from fluffy musical comedies like “Blue Hawaii” and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” was not good for business.
“The choice of films, obviously, was done to get more money. It was one girl picture after another,” Hart said. “Elvis told me, when we did ‘King Creole,’ ‘I really want to do more films like this, because I would love to be the new James Dean.’ He said, ‘I think I could do it.’ But they never gave him that script. They wanted a script they could count on to get a lot of people, a lot of money and a lot of fuss. And I think Colonel Tom Parker didn’t do him justice as an agent.”
By the time she had finished her second film with Elvis, Hart had become a Hollywood darling, one of the next big leading ladies, and drew critical comparisons to Grace Kelly. The actress starred in eight films outside of her collaborations with Presley, including “Where the Boys Are” and “Come Fly with Me,” and earned a Tony Award nomination for her stage performance in “The Pleasure of His Company.” She was even engaged to a handsome Los Angeles architect named Don Robinson.
But in 1963, at the age of 24, on the cusp of the movie superstardom she dreamed of as a child, Dolores Hart gave it all up… to become a nun.
A practicing Catholic since the age of 10, Hart had visited the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut on several occasions and found a sense of solitude and belonging within its walls. And despite her success in Hollywood, she told me “the vocation built in many, many quiet ways,” until she could no longer resist the call.
“Don said to me one night, ‘You’re just not with this, where are you?’” Hart recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ He said, ‘I think you should go back to your Abbey and think things out, because I don’t think you want to marry me.’ So I did go to Regina Laudis the next day, and really talked to the Mother Abbess, and I didn’t understand that all the times that I had come there, I had come because I trusted something there, and I trusted myself there, and I could find with the people there a kindred sense of understanding that was very important to me. And that, I think, was the time in which I knew I had to make this decision.”
The transition to cloistered life was not an easy one, and Hart struggled with the loss of her freedom and the identity she had built on the silver screen. Ironically, it was a friend from her life in Hollywood that helped her get through this difficult period.
“One of the most important things was a relationship with Gary Cooper’s daughter Maria, whom I had met early in my career,” Hart said. “And Maria was such a foundation for me. She was the one I thought was going to be a nun, because she was so fine in her appreciation of the church and went to all the masses. She was a great sister, a real sister to me, and she stayed with me. She was one of the few people who knew about my decision to go to Regina Laudis, and she helped me.”
Hart continued: “She bought material for my dress, and when I got there, it had been made. It was gorgeous, shiny silk. It looked so fabulous, but against the rest of the sisters, it was embarrassingly gaudy. [laughs] And I thought, ‘I will never get through this.’”
Fifty years later, Mother Dolores Hart is still living at Regina Laudis. However, her influence is still felt in Hollywood, not only through the films she left behind in what would seem another life, but through her influence as a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hart even attended the 2012 Academy Awards on behalf of the HBO documentary about her life, “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” which was nominated for an Oscar. She hopes that, one day, Naomi Watts will play her in the movie version of her life.
Read Mother Dolores’ fascinating story, in her own words, captured in the autobiography “The Ear of the Heart,” which is available now.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.