From the silver screen to salvation

A look back at the role of God in the lives of classic Hollywood stars—have times really changed that much?

Let's Dance, Betty Hutton, Fred Astaire, 1950. Photo courtesy of Everett Collection

When the Oscars are doled out Sunday night we’ll hear plenty of words of thanks. Actors, writers and producers will thank their family and friends, their agents and studios, their hairdressers and therapists. And maybe one or two will thank God.

But in the Golden Age of Hollywood, according to author Mary Claire Kendall, many of its brightest stars acknowledged that they owed the Almighty more than a tip of the hat for their glorious careers. They owed their very lives to Him—lives filled with successes and failures, lives that sometimes were reclaimed and redeemed only at the very end.

“It’s pretty nice to get an Oscar,” Kendall says, laughing. “That’d probably make you pretty happy for a while. But really, true happiness, a lot of times you realize it’s the simpler things in life. We’re made for God. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”

Kendall’s book Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, gives us an intimate look at some of Hollywood’s most luminary figures, from heroic superstars John Wayne and Gary Cooper to legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, to Oscar winners Jane Wyman and Susan Hayward, to 19-time Oscar host (and legendary funnyman) Bob Hope. According to Kendall, some of these Golden Age performers could’ve given today’s tabloid staples (I’m looking at you, Lindsay Lohan) a run for their money in the art of living fast, high, and loose. Oasis chronicles affairs and abortions, drug use and depression. And yet each of Kendall’s subjects—sometimes after decades of running the other way—returned to God and the Catholic Church.

HERE COME THE WAVES, Betty Hutton, 1944

Betty Hutton in Here Come the Waves, 1944. Photo courtesy of Everett Collection

Take Betty Hutton, the first story of faith that Kendall explored and which, eventually, became the catalyst for her book, Oasis. Hutton was Hollywood royalty during her heyday in the 1940s and early ‘50s. She became a worldwide sensation when she starred in Annie Get Your Gun in 1950. She took top billing in 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth over such stars as Charlton Heston and James Stewart. (The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.)

When she was just beginning her singing and acting career, Hutton was a woman of deep faith. “I never went on the stage without praying,” she said on The Mike Douglas Show in 1977, according to Kendall. But with success, her beliefs fell by the wayside. And when her career began to crumble after The Greatest Show on Earth, she had little to fall back on.

Contract disputes, drug abuse, and her own failing voice trashed Hutton’s career. In 1967, after her fourth divorce, she filed for bankruptcy. By 1970 she was homeless. And in 1972, she admits that she tried to commit suicide. “It was the end of the road for me,” Kendall quotes Hutton in Oasis.

Mary Claire Kendall on the Oscars red carpet.

Mary Claire Kendall covering the Oscars in 2014. Photo courtesy of Mary Claire Kendall

It might’ve well been, had Hutton not met Father Peter McGuire that same year, a pastor and counselor at St. Anthony’s Church in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. McGuire took the former starlet in and allowed her to live in the attic of the rectory. There she cooked and cleaned, made beds and washed dishes, recovering her life bit by hesitating bit. It wasn’t an easy recovery, and there were many times when she slipped back into old, fractured patterns, according to Kendall. But McGuire patiently walked her back to a semblance of life. He gave Hutton, who dropped out of school at the age of 13, a high school education. And he walked her back into a faith she had long since left. In 1986, with McGuire’s help, Hutton graduated from college—clutching a Rosary even as she held the diploma.

“Her story, how she was just at rock bottom and was lifted up, well, it was great drama,” Kendall said. “It would make a great movie.”

Hutton’s story is unique, of course, but parts bear strong similarities to others. Many of the stars chronicled in Oasis found supersized success in the entertainment industry, but it never insulated them from career setbacks and personal misery. “Hollywood, it’s a unique place for creating a crisis of soul,” Kendall said. “A lot of the stars, tragically, implode.”

But then somehow—often through a spouse or a friend or, as in Hutton’s case, a patient priest—slowly find the salve they’d been looking for much of their lives, even if they didn’t know it. “As big as stardom is, God is the biggest star,” said Kendall.

Oasis Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends cover

And, of course, He still is—even if those in the entertainment industry lose sight of that truth sometimes. “I think more than ever, there’s a need for God in Hollywood,” Kendall said. And she believes that He’s just as active in Tinseltown as he was back in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

“From what I’ve heard anecdotally, I think there’s a resurgence of faith,” she says. She points to stars like Patricia Heaton and Mark Wahlberg, both of whom have been open about their spiritual beliefs. “And of course you hear a lot about the evangelicals who want to save Hollywood,” she adds. “I hope they don’t get lost in the process … but it’s a noble goal.”

But as Kendall’s book illustrates, the walk to faith can be a long one, and sometimes torturously filled with unexpected twists and turns. Perhaps in the years to come, she’ll be able to chronicle the faith journeys of a whole new generation.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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