Melissa Leo is earning rave reviews for her role as the the tough-as-nails Reverend Mother in Margaret Betts‘ “Novitiate” which opens October 27 in limited release. Her performance in this Sony Pictures Classics could well win her a bookend to her 2010 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Indeed, she currently ranks fourth in our combined predictions with odds of 10/1 and is likely to be the 14th actress recognized by the academy for donning a habit.
The first actress to garner an Oscar nomination for playing a nun was Jennifer Jones, who portrayed the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous who has a holy vision in Henry King‘s “The Song of Bernadette” (1943). Jones won the Best Actress Oscar on her 25th birthday after having taken home the very first Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Two years later Ingrid Bergman was nominated for her star turn as headmistress Sister Mary, who squabbles with Bing Crosby‘s Father O’Malley in Leo McCarey‘s “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945). Though Bergman won a Golden Globe for the performance, she lost on Oscar night to Joan Crawford for “Mildred Pierce.”
At the decade’s end, Loretta Young and Celeste Holm reaped Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations respectively for their turns as French nuns determined to build a school in New England in Henry Koster‘s “Come to the Stable” (1949). Young fell short to Olivia de Havilland (“The Heiress”) while Holm lost to Mercedes McCambridge (“All the King’s Men”).
Nearly a decade later, Deborah Kerr was recognized for her performance Sister Angela who bonds with Robert Mitchum‘s U.S. Marine in John Huston‘s “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957). This was Kerr’s fourth of an eventual six Best Actress nominations; she lost to Joanne Woodward (“The Three Faces of Eve”).
Two years later, Audrey Hepburn scored a Best Actress bid for her portrayal of Gabrielle van der Mal, who leaves her cushy, upper-class life to become a nun and nurse in Fred Zinnemann‘s “The Nun’s Story” (1959). While Hepburn won a BAFTA Award for her performance, it was Simone Sigornet (“Room at the Top”) who would emerge triumphant at the Oscars.
Lilia Skala contended in Best Supporting Actress for her scene-stealing work as the strong-willed Sister Maria who works alongside Sidney Poitier‘s Homer Smith to build a new chapel in Ralph Nelson‘s “Lilies of the Field” (1963). While Poitier made history as the first African-American to win the Best Actor Oscar, Skala was bested by Dame Margaret Rutherford (“The V.I.P.s”).
Two years later, Peggy Wood was nominated for her portrayal of the kind and caring Mother Abbess in Robert Wise‘s “The Sound of Music” (1965). While the box office smash won both Best Picture and Best Director, Wood was not successful, losing to Shelley Winters (“A Patch of Blue”) in her second Oscar win.
It would be a full two decades before another actress was Oscar-nominated for portraying a nun.
In 1985, Anne Bancroft, playing a Mother Superior, and Meg Tilly, as a novice nun, were recognized in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively for Norman Jewison‘s psychological drama “Agnes of God.” While Tilly took home a Golden Globe for her performance, neither actress was victorious at the Oscars, as Geraldine Page (“The Trip to Bountiful”) and Anjelica Huston (“Prizzi’s Honor”) prevailed.
A decade later, and 52 years after Jones’ win, another actress at last secured an Oscar for portraying a nun. On her fifth Best Actress Oscar nomination, Susan Sarandon finally claimed victory with her turn as the empathetic Sister Helen Prejean, who serves as a spiritual advisor to death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), in Tim Robbins‘ “Dead Man Walking” (1995). Sarandon also garnered the Screen Actors Guild Award for this performance.
Most recently, Meryl Streep, as the domineering Sister Beauvier, and Amy Adams, as the concerned Sister James, contended for Oscars for their work in director/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley‘s screen adaption of his play “Doubt” (2008). While Streep won the Screen Actors Guild Award for her turn, neither she nor Adams triumphed on Oscar night, as Kate Winslet (“The Reader”) and Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) went home with Oscars.
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