Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The word alone conjures up many images in the American imagination. Having been raised Roman Catholic and sent to Catholic schools for junior high and highschool, I have my own disposition towards priests. I remember having to stand every time Father __________ walked into my classroom, and having to remain standing until he allowed us to sit back down.

Is it due to these experiences that I harbor a fascination with priests, or is it because of the way they are portrayed in the American imagination? There are various ways in which priests are portrayed in films- but it seems that whenever a priest is ‘good’, they cast an rather attractive actor as him. This is greatly confusing to viewers who are familiar with the vows of priesthood ( particularly, celibacy) but who cannot deny the signals their eyes are sending to their brains.

A prime example of this conundrum is the movie Quills, in which Joaquin Phoenix portrays The Abbe du Coulmier, who runs the asylum. He is overflowing with Byronic charm (both the Abbe and Phoenix) and he is undeniably attractive in the physical sense, which leads to mixed feelings when you remind yourself that he is supposed to be a priest. . .In even starker contrast is the fact that by historical account, the Abbe is described as extremely short and hunchbacked. Obviously, Phoenix is much easier on the eyes than a man fitting that description but it only further illustrates the difference between actual priests and imagined preists.

Another example of this phenomenon is the classic film “Boys Town” (isn’t there supposed to be an apostrophe after “Boys” in this sense? Oh well, I digress. . .). Spencer Tracy, the quintessential “man’s man’ depicts the saint-like Father Flannigan, who of course is the real founder of the Boys Town institute in Nebraska. Father Falannagan is the firm but sympathetic savior of runaway and homeless boys. With kind eyes and a knowing smile, he defies his charges to try and slip something past him. Yet, when anyone tries his patience or challenges his machismo, he is quick to show them that he is strong in faith, AND of will and strength. A prime example of this interplay is in the movie Boys Town when Whitey Marsh (the protagonist played by Mickey Rooney) first meets Father Falnnagan. Whitey is disinterested, to say the least, in Father’s intention to take him back to Boys Town. He is quickly put in his place when the Father sees his disrespectful attitude. After all, Whitey did not stand up when a priest entered the room. . . .

My third example is another classic movie, “The Bells of St. Mary’s”. Bing Crosby reappears as Father O’Malley (he fist appeared as this character in the film “Going My Way”). He displays the same parental authority over the pupils as Father Flannagan does. When a young girl (pters his quarters wearing make-up and a hair ‘rat’, he quickly sets about wiping off her lipstick and remving the ‘rat’ just as most fathers would do if they saw their young daughter trying to appear several years older. Although Crosby does not exude masculinity like Tracy does, he is undoubtedly attractive in his own easygoing attitude and astuteness in regard to the ways of children, not to mention, those tricky Sisters (headed by Ingrid Bergman)!

My last example of captivating clergymen is the most recent film in my ‘piece on priests’: the 2008 adaptation of “Doubt” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn. Now I must admit my bias in regard to this example, I have been a fan of Mr. Hoffman for years and so my admiration for his skill greatly contributes to my perception of his attractiveness. (Plus, I am a Rochester, NY native- way to represent the Flower City, Phil!)* Anyway, his portrayal of the priest who may or may not have behaved inappropriately with a student makes him a relatable character because of his “everyman quality”. Nonetheless, Hoffman has been quoted as saying that non one describes him in attractive ways, and that no one ever says he’s cute. I wouldn’t say “cute’ is the best word to describe him, especially when he is portraying a man of the cloth, but his physicality combined with the confidence that he brings to all his characters does equal undeniable charm.

So why does Hollywood insist on casting tantalizing men as “forbidden fruit”? It is one of the many tricks of the industry, and certainly one of the oldest: fantasy.
Next up: The Iconography of Nuns

* Philip Seymour Hoffman was born in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Fairport.