There are two movies from my childhood that I’ll never get sick of. The kind I sit down and watch when I catch them on TV, simply joyful movies that made me laugh and comforted me through bouts of the flu. They were released within a year of each other (1992 and 1993) and both of them feature characters whose survival or happiness depend on convincingly becoming different people. The first of these is Mrs. Doubtfire, and the second, 25 years old today and so worthy of celebration, is Sister Act. The early ‘90s comedy warmed many hearths with its family-friendly fare, but it’s also a diorama that examines the roles we all play in life and reminds us that their believability depends on our ability and desire to perform them convincingly.
The premise of Sister Act is questionable, at best. Deloris (Whoopi Goldberg) a bored and uninspired lounge singer witnesses her mobster boyfriend murder someone and must go into hiding to save her life. She’s sent to a convent in San Francisco in what seems like a cosmic joke; Deloris is no stranger to the Lord or the ladies in habit.
I’d like to start off by saying that there are aspects of roleplay that I, a white woman, cannot touch on. Deloris certainly played specific roles her entire life simply because she is a woman of colour. Our first introduction to Deloris is as a child in catholic school where she is already playing the role of class clown. Fed by the laughter of her fellow students, she relies on her humour even when it’s detrimental to her learning. She is not the teacher’s pet, as it were. Anyone who has been to Catholic school knows the bizarre fear an angry old nun can instill and the rebellion she can inspire. These experiences and getting reactions from them likely inspired Deloris to continue to be a straight-shooter loudmouth who wouldn’t put up with anybody’s shit. My kinda lady. Her one-liners are classic and even as a child I admired her no-nonsense tone with her terrible boyfriend and men at the bar.
Deloris was a performer from an early age so it’s no surprise she finds herself singing with a group called The Ronelles to a less than interested bar crowd in Reno. She’s frustrated with her station in life not only due to her lacking venue but also the fact that her married boyfriend won’t leave his wife. She plays the role of “the other woman” and she’s as tired of it as she is with the gig he provides as her employer. Before she has a chance to dump his ass and quit, however, she must run for her life through one of two great chase scenes and be placed in witness protection. Though she enters the convent of the Order of Saint Clare under duress, it will become a place of sanctuary for Deloris to find out who she really is by pretending to be someone else.
Maggie Smith plays the formidable Mother Superior trapped by the ways of the past, her fear of change and personal irrelevance manifest as anger. She has every right to be angry with Deloris, at least at first, who disturbs the quiet convent with her shocking speech and insensitive questions. She vocally opposes the nuns’ vows of chastity and poverty but makes a legitimate effort to do her part and contribute. Since she can’t disclose her identity she must pretend to be a transfer from a different convent. Only Mother Superior knows the truth and this enables her to put up with Deloris’ shenanigans. Otherwise, Deloris plays the role of Sister Mary Clarence from “the convent of the Sisters of the Moonlight” where they had “a hooker living next door named Buckwheat Bertha” Her disturbance to their way of life seems to delight and interest everyone except Mother Superior. Deloris adds flavour and life to an otherwise failing church through her own strengths. She breathes fresh air into the womens callings and strangely reminds them of why they joined the order in the first place.
When she is assigned to lead the hilariously terrible choir as punishment, Deloris takes it in stride and sees an opportunity. Her role then switches from “diva in hiding” to leader and mentor and this responsibility gives her what she needs to refine her personal characteristics. I believe when given responsibility and a sense of purpose, most people will rise to the occasion and Deloris is a shining example. She effectively transforms the choir into a well-rounded and put together group that sings refreshed versions of the classics mixing soul music like Mary Wells’ My Guy (rewritten, of course, as My God) and traditional hymns much to the chagrin of Mother Superior and the delight to literally everyone else.
This makes them more lively and attractive and draws people in from the streets with their slick beats. Not only that, Deloris is able to recognize each sister’s strength and hone it to perfection. Through this she personally develops patience and empathy for the sisters, pushing them outside of the convent walls to interact with the community. Some of the nuns’ roles are stereotypical: Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena) has a powerhouse voice hidden by shyness that Deloris pulls out. Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes) is a crotchety old nun (with a great sense of humour) who longs for the days of old, comparing their convent to “a Hilton”. Others fit in with their pious personalities and curious questions, cut off from the world but given a glimpse through Deloris.
The church is full, people are being helped, and there’s a new sense of life at the convent. By this point, Sister Mary Clarence is Deloris’ finest role, one that she plays so well it’s easy to forget why she’s there in the first place. She transforms without losing the best parts of her personality and compromising on her own personal values. There is no saving moment with Deloris on her knees sincerely asking Jesus into her heart because this isn’t a story about faith even though religion is so predominant. It’s a story about being the best version of yourself you can be while helping others do the same. It’s a reminder to “bloom where you are planted” as we do not have the luxury of choosing each of our roles, but we have the choice of how well we perform them.
Besides this, Sister Act is a hilarious and memorable movie. Kathy Nijimi is a delight as cheerful Sister Mary Patrick, whose voice projection and dance moves shoot right to the funny bone. Maggie Smith has that shocked and appalled old lady face down so well that it’s nearly impossible not to giggle at her every reaction while maintaining empathy for her dying way of life. Later she will see that her role is not destroyed but has simply changed, and it’s her choice whether or not to fit it.
The film’s success is owed largely to Whoopi’s performance and presence. Her comedic timing is sharp and she has always been one to draw admiration as someone who is sure of herself and competent at everything she lays her hand to. Her handle on using religious humour without being truly offensive is a rare gift, likely thanks to Carrie Fischer who was a big part of script rewrites when Bette Midler turned down the role.
Sister Act was a huge financial success for the early ‘90s inspiring a sequel with the best title of all time (Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit), and a musical that eventually landed on Broadway. This is no surprise, as it has one of the best film soundtracks that mixes original songs, score and songs from artists such as Etta James, Dee Dee Sharp, and Fontella Bass. If you’re not singing or at least wiggling in your seat a little bit at the reveal of Hail Holy Queen, or the do-gooder montage of Just a Touch of Love, where are you?
In the end, because of the role Deloris plays, she becomes a better person, her impatience and anger is softened and she inspires the women around her to become more active in their faith and change with the times without losing themselves. While she spends most of the movie wanting to escape the convent, after a fully ridiculous discovery and rescue attempt by nuns in a helicopter, running through a casino, she fights to stay and help them perform for the Pope, the highest honor. As such, the film ends on such a high point of joy it’s suddenly much easier to dismiss its goofy premise because it just feels so good. While being a precious piece of early ‘90s memorabilia, it continues to feel good, 25 years later.
Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures