The Reel Dad reflects on his favorite cinematic priests
“The Two Popes” offers its lead actors a rich opportunity to play priests working in the church. Over the years, many performers have found themselves at home in this setting. Here are my seven favorite performances by actors playing priests.
Spencer Tracy in “San Francisco” (1936)
When we first meet Father Mullen, he is a congenial spirit in the wild town of San Francisco just before the earthquake of 1906. Tracy brings his usual sense of humor and engaging spirit to a role that, at first, appears to be a sidekick to Clark Gable. Only later, as disaster strikes, do we get to experience the real meaning that Tracy brings to the film. And he was Oscar nominated.
Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” (1944)
When we first see Father O’Malley, he arrives at a church in New York City to “take on” the elder priest in charge, played by Barry Fitzgerald. As the two strong-willed men take their time to get to know each other, they entertain us with rich conversation, much like the two men in ”The Two Popes.” For his performance, Bing Crosby won the Oscar as Best Actor of 1944.
Karl Malden in “On the Waterfront” (1954)
When we first glimpse Father Barry, he appears to be a calm, almost hesitant man who relies on a fundamental good in people to balance the underworld interests in his parish. But when a man is killed, this “waterfront priest” finds himself confronting his approach before reconciling he needs to step into action. And he was Oscar nominated, too.
Cecil Kellaway in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)
When we first encounter Monsignor Ryan, we’re immediately struck by his gentle humor, a quality that becomes essential to keep the peace in a household stunned by the announcement of an interracial marriage. The veteran actor Cecil Kellaway, who earlier played a priest in “The Cardinal” in 1963, was Oscar-nominated for his turn as Ryan in a most special film.
Jason Miller in “The Exorcist” (1973)
When we first observe Father Karras, he is distressed by dreams of a mother he may have neglected, a life he may have mismanaged, a soul he may have alienated. That he becomes involved with a young girl who may be possessed prompts this man to take a close look at his life. Jason Miller, an award-winning playwright, was Oscar nominated for one of his few film appearances.
Max Von Sydow in “The Exorcist” (1973)
When we first hear the voice of Father Merrin, we are immediately comforted by the calm in his manner, and the care in his approach. How much he may be able to do - to try to save the life of a girl believed to be possessed - gives this film its tension, much as Jason Miller’s portrayal defines the movie’s soul. The magic that Max Von Sydow brings to every film appearance certainly works here.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt” (2008)
When we first glance at Father Flynn, we immediately sense the caring that he brings to the students of an elementary school he oversees. But when he is accused of paying too much attention to a student, and in a way that may be inappropriate, Flynn begins to reveal layers of resistance that define his religious commitment. And Philip Seymour Hoffman was also an Oscar nominee.
As you savor “The Two Popes,” consider taking a fresh look at some of these classics, too.