Once they were heroes; now filmmakers depict them as bitter men

In film history, the priest has been among the most common and enduring characters, and to a large extent has been played by actors of Catholic background.

From the 1930s, Catholics were prominent in Hollywood, whether actors such as Spencer Tracy and James Cagney or directors like John Ford and Leo McCarey. Producers turned to Catholic actors to perform what was judged to be the difficult and delicate role of a priest. Thus Bing Crosby played in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945), and Gregory Peck in The Keys to the Kingdom (1944). The individual characters may have varied, but the portrayal of the priest remained constant: an image of conviction and steadfastness, compassion and courage, and maturity of judgment.

More recent decades have given rise to different images. In the 1970s, priests began to be cast in an unfavourable light – for example, Saturday Night Fever (1977) and The Exorcist series (1973 and 1977). They were depicted as insipid, immature and, at times, embittered men. In Saturday Night Fever, the young priest leaves his vocation. In the last scene, his brother (played by John Travolta) tries on the clerical collar, only to hold it tightly round his neck in the form of a noose.

This demeaning image of the priesthood resulted from a convergence of factors. They included anti-Catholic prejudice, which intensified as a result of the Church’s stand on “life” issues such as abortion; the clerical abuse scandals, which have damaged the Church’s moral credibility in the wider society and, perversely, in the very areas of sexual morality that were already under cultural attack; and, finally, a general decline of heroic and admirable characters (of which the priest was formerly one), especially affecting male figures in the family and society.

More recently, there has been some recovery of the image of the priest, in movies such as Gran Torino (2008), where a loving cleric reaches out to a troubled war veteran (Clint Eastwood), and For Greater Glory (2012), which features Peter O’Toole as a kindly martyr priest.

Such presentations, even when idealised, speak to a cultural, as well as religious, exaltation of the priest as a vital leader of the community. This was especially true of portrayals in the years before and after World War II, and probably no actor personified the priest more vividly than Spencer Tracy. He came from a strongly Irish-Catholic background, and at an early age was inspired by the Church’s liturgy and its sacred intimations of a stage, with the priest’s gestures and silent movements and colourful vestments all contributing to the dramatic intensity of the ceremony.

In San Francisco (1936), Tracy played the kind and rugged boyhood friend of a nightclub owner (Clark Gable). In Boys Town (1938) and its sequel Men of Boys Town (1941), he portrayed Fr Edward Flanagan, founder of the famous school and community for homeless boys. And in The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961), he was an ageing, alcoholic priest who sacrifices his life to save the inhabitants of an earthquake-stricken island in the Pacific.

Following San Francisco, Tracy received letters from atheists describing the spiritual awakenings they experienced in watching him as a priest. In Boys Town, he modelled his performance on the person of Fr Flanagan. When he received his second Academy Award for best actor in 1938, he declared that it really belonged to Fr Flanagan. So he gave the Oscar to him.

As a boy, Tracy nursed the ambition of becoming a priest, and he evidently felt deeply that he should have been a priest, not an actor – that he had, in fact, spurned his true vocation. In this, he reflected an experience not uncommon in the entertainment world, in which various people have thought, at one time or another, of entering the priesthood. Modern-day examples include Jim Caviezel, who starred in The Passion of the Christ (2004), and Martin Scorsese, the Italian-American director of Silence (2016).

The evidence is considerable that Tracy himself was a deeply religious man. After his death 50 years ago, in 1967, the Hollywood actor and scriptwriter Garson Kanin reflected on the enduring quality of his friend’s life and faith:

I find it significant that he, a devout Catholic, and I, a confirmed atheist, could have formed and continued and revelled in a 30-year friendship. Long walks – Spencer patiently, painstakingly interpreting his faith. Long talks – during which he listened (as only he could listen) to the other side, with never a moment of pique or irritation …

Now the walks and talks are ended. If I am right, we must be content with the heritage of the memory of a nonesuch actor and a darlin’ man. If he is right, we must envy the angels.

Karl Schmude is a former university librarian and a founding fellow of the Catholic liberal arts college Campion College, in New South Wales

This article first appeared in the September 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here