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14 Faithful Facts About Sister Act

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From The Sound of Music to Dead Man Walking, nuns have always had a place on the silver screen—but none of those movies have given personality to the women behind the habits quite like Sister Act. If Sister Mary Clarence and the sisters of St. Katherine's made your toes tap, here are 14 facts you'll give praise for.

1. DELORIS/SISTER MARY CLARENCE WAS PARTIALLY INSPIRED BY A REAL NUN.

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As part of his research, screenwriter Paul Rudnick visited the Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut, to meet Mother Dolores Hart. Hart had been a Hollywood actress, singer, and dancer, starring in movies such as Where the Boys Are and King Creole. Though she left the industry to become a nun when she was just 24, she’s a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to this day.

2. BETTE MIDLER WAS ORIGINALLY ATTACHED TO STAR.

Though the Divine Miss M was originally onboard, she later backed out for reasons she came to regret: “I said: ‘My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple.’ I don’t know where I got that from. Why would I say such a thing? So Whoopi did it instead and, of course, she made a fortune.”

3. THE NAME OF THE MAIN CHARACTER WAS CHANGED WHEN MIDLER LEFT.

The original name of the singer-turned-sister was Terri Van Cartier. It was changed when Whoopi Goldberg was cast, because, according to Rudnick, “She’d always wanted to play someone named Deloris.”

4. CARRIE FISHER HELPED REWRITE THE SCRIPT.

When Midler backed out, script adjustments went far beyond a name change—but Disney only allowed writers two weeks to overhaul the script after the lead actress change. Additional writers were brought in to help doctor the script; in addition to Carrie Fisher, other contributors included Nancy Meyers and Robert Harling. Fisher, by the way, has a long history of fixing scripts—she also worked on last-minute rewrites to Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer.

5. THE WRITER “JOSEPH HOWARD” IS NOT A REAL PERSON.

By the time the movie was released, it had been rewritten so much that Rudnick didn’t consider it his work anymore. He suggested the work be credited under the name R. Chasuble after the priest in The Importance of Being Earnest. That was rejected, so Rudnick tried for “Screenplay by Goofy.” Another no-go. Finally, “Joseph Howard” was accepted. “It sounds like the name of someone who helped found the Mormon Church,” Rudnick later wrote.

6. KATHY NAJIMY BASED HER CHARACTER ON MARY HART.

Kathy Najimy wasn’t totally sure how she was going to portray such a bubbly, cheerful nun—until she happened to catch anchor Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight. “I turn on the TV. It's something with me and Sally Field running around, and they come back to Mary Hart, and she went, 'That Sally Field, ya gotta love her!’ And I said, 'Oh my God, that's my nun!'"

Najimy later sent Hart a bouquet of roses. “[But] I didn’t say why.”

7. SOME OF THE ACTRESSES GOT UP TO SOME MISCHIEF BETWEEN SCENES.

The production spent some time filming in a Reno casino, which the actresses loved. "That was great, because I love gambling,” Najimy said. “Wendy [Makkena, who plays Sister Mary Robert] smokes, and we'd sit at the 21 table in our nun outfits with drinks in front of us. That was hilarious."

8. NO, THAT’S NOT THE REAL ACTRESS SINGING SISTER MARY ROBERT’S PARTS.

One of the subplots of the movie is Deloris’ efforts to bring the timid Sister Mary Robert out of her shell. We eventually realize that the soft-spoken sister can really belt one out—but it’s not really actress Wendy Makkena singing. She was dubbed by singer Andrea Robinson. Whoopi, however, did her own singing.

9. ONE OF THE SCENES WAS CHANGED AT NAJIMY’S BEHEST.

There was originally a scene that called for Najimy’s character, Sister Mary Patrick, to protest against a pornographic bookstore. Najimy felt it encroached on her First Amendment rights and asked the director to come up with something different. Instead, Sister Mary Patrick ended up selling raffle tickets.

10. THE PRODUCTION WAS SUED FOR PLAGIARISM.

In 1993, Donna Douglas (better known as Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies) filed a $200 million suit against Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, their production companies, Creative Artists Agency, Walt Disney Pictures, and more. Douglas had optioned a book called A Nun in the Closet, which they turned into a screenplay and submitted to the studio. They were turned down—and then Sister Act came out. The plaintiffs declined $1 million from Disney to settle, which was a mistake; eventually, the judge found in favor of Disney.

11. THEY WERE SUED AGAIN IN 2011.

This time, a nun by the name of Delois Blakely claimed that Disney and Sony Pictures sourced from her autobiography without permission. The filing stated that Blakely was a "young, Black, singing nun serving the street people and youths of Harlem," which was the focus of her 1987 book The Harlem Street Nun.

12. DESPITE APPEARANCES, THE CHURCH SCENES WERE SHOT IN AN UPPER-MIDDLE-CLASS NEIGHBORHOOD.

The church scenes were shot at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in San Francisco, which is in an affluent area of town. To make it look rundown, which was important to the plot, the street was dressed with trash and cars that appeared to be abandoned.

13. THE MOVIE WAS MADE INTO A MUSICAL.

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Sister Act opened on Broadway in 2011 and received several Tony Award nominations that year. Unfortunately, it was often up against The Book of Mormon, which took the Tonys by storm. When the show went to London's West End, Whoopi Goldberg made a limited appeareance—but this time, she played Mother Superior.

14. A REMAKE IS IN THE WORKS.

Could there be more sister shenanigans on the way? Maybe. Variety reported that writers and producers had signed on for the remake. Whoopi might be up for it:

“I generally say no to that, because so many of the nuns have passed and it just wouldn’t feel right for me," she said on Watch What Happens Live. “I’m kind of old for it now. That’s not to say I wouldn’t do it, but it feels like there’s a new generation for Sister Act and so maybe I can be a nun now.”

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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