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Academy Awards’ no-nunsense films In Focus by Richard Crouse December 12, 2008

doubt4_LIf Meryl Streep earns an Academy Award for her performance as the formidable Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a nun who confronts a priest after suspecting him of abusing an African American student in Doubt, she will join a short but prestigious list of actresses who have won gold playing nuns.

The first to win an Oscar for portraying a sister was Jennifer Jones in 1943’s The Song of Bernadette; next, Susan Sarandon won for playing Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking.

Nuns have a long cinematic history and everyone from Ingrid Bergman to Mary Tyler Moore to Eric Idle has donned a habit for dramatic effect. Nuns have flown, sung and even been shipwrecked with Robert Mitchum on a Pacific Island, but my favorite big screen nun is Sister Assumpta in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.

The title sounds ripped from the headlines, but is actually taken from a 1994 novel by Chris Fuhrman.

Set in the early 1970s, the film revolves around a group of teenage boys obsessed with comic books. Their ringleader, Tim, played by Kieran Culkin, is a prankster who schemes to get revenge on Sister Assumpta, a joyless, strict nun with a prosthetic leg played by Jodie Foster.

Learning most of what they know of the world from the superhero adventures written by Stan Lee, they believe there are only two types of people — heroes and villains. Sister Assumpta falls into the latter category and becomes the subject of a “blasphemous” comic book drawn by the boys featuring the evil motorcycle-driving Nunzilla.

The guys imagine themselves as the heroes who do battle with Nunzilla’s sisterly minions. Once the comic book is discovered the boys are expelled from school, assured by Sister Assumpta that not only are they not welcome at school anymore, they likely won’t be welcome in Heaven either.

Foster’s Sister Assumpta spits hellfire in every sentence. She plays the sister as a strict disciplinarian who truly believes she is doing the best to save her students from damnation. Her peg leg is just a physical manifestation of her rigid personality. It’s something different for Foster, who pulls it off with aplomb.

For more adventurous viewers, there are nunsploitation movies. Sometimes called Convent Erotica, these movies are not for the easily offended and have titles like Killer Nun and Behind the Convent Walls. Watch them, but don’t forget to say ten Hail Marys afterwards.

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