"Dorothy Day made many mistakes in her life," grants priest and filmmaker Ellwood P. Kieser, "but I have no doubt that she is now a saint! After all, she surrendered her life to God and gave God a chance to work in her. And that's what makes one a saint."
Father Kieser, better known as "Bud," is a big, tall Paulist priest
who has worked zealously in Hollywood for over 36 years to carve out
a space for the gospel message in the film and TV industry. Entertaining
Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, his new feature film opening in
New York, Los Angeles and Toronto on September 27 and expanding to
the other U.S. and Canadian cities in the weeks following, is his
latest attempt to do just that. (See additional production information
Entertaining Angels brings to the big screen the story of a remarkable American woman who became a convert to Catholicism in the 1930's, cofounded the Catholic Worker Movement and lived with the poor and the unemployed for the rest of her life. She became a leading voice in the worker movement, as well as in the anti-war and civil-rights movement. She died in 1980.
"I knew her," Father Kieser tells me as we sit on wooden steps a stone's throw from an old weather-beaten cottage at Broad Beach in Malibu where part of the film was being shot in April 1995. "Dorothy and I met in Rome during the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council in the mid 60's," Father Kieser recalls. "I asked her one day if I could put her story on film--to which she quipped rather brusquely: 'Wait 'til I'm dead!'"
Dorothy Day's "mistakes," according to Father Kieser, included a series of ill-fated romantic relationships with which she struggled as a young woman. They generally ended in heartbreak and pain, one even involving an abortion.
"Yet, in time," adds Father Kieser, "this woman made the necessary decisions to turn her life over to Christ. She entered the Church and spent the last 50 years of her life serving the poor and homeless in New York City. She had a prophetic influence on the American and universal Church. She lived out in her own life the option for the poor and the vocation of a peacemaker."
Father Kieser calls Dorothy Day "a feisty, street smart, yet compassionate American Mother Teresa--but a Mother Teresa with a past!"
As a matter of fact, Dorothy Day met with Mother Teresa more than once during her lifetime, once in Calcutta. Both women, Father Kieser points out, "clearly understood the limitations of a bureaucratic response to homelessness and poverty. Each saw the absolute necessity of reaching out in a personal, one-to-one way in helping those who are needy or marginalized."
Cast Led by Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen
Very visible during the shooting of Entertaining Angels--at least the two days St. Anthony Messenger was on the set--was the 27-year-old movie actress Moira Kelly, who plays the title role. Kelly is single and a committed Roman Catholic.
She was very visible because her role required her to appear in nearly every scene of the film. Kelly was constantly rushing back and forth between her mobile dressing room and the cottage and beach area where many of the scenes of Day's early life were set. (In real life, Dorothy's cottage was on Staten Island, New York.)
Despite the nonstop shooting schedule that would go late into the night, Kelly cordially squeezed in an interview with St. Anthony Messenger (see sidebar below).
Also prominent in the film is Martin Sheen, best known for his starring role with Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and more recently with Michael Douglas in the hit, The American President. Sheen, who has worked with Father Kieser on other movie projects, plays the role of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day's mentor and the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement.
Though Sheen was not on the set at the time of my visit, he said later by phone "playing the role of Peter Maurin was an opportunity to give back to the Catholic Worker what they had given to me. You see, back in 1959, I was a struggling actor in New York. And I used to go to the Catholic Worker house on Spring Street to get free meals--and also food for the soul!
"The spirit of Dorothy Day is very much alive today," he adds. "She was a major contributor to the direction the Church has take in social justice. Being in this film has been very satisfying."
Two-time Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon ( Absence of Malice, Prince of Tides) takes the part of Sister Aloysius, the zealous nun who helped bring Dorothy into the Church. Veteran actor Brian Keith plays the cardinal archbishop of New York who, in the film's version of the story, comes to visit Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker house to question her regarding some of her activities on behalf of the poor. (In real life, this confrontation occurred between Dorothy Day and a chancery official, not directly with any cardinal as such.)
The music for Entertaining Angels is by Bill Conti, whose popular scores for the Rocky movies are well known to millions of Americans.
The film was scripted by John Wells, who is currently executive producer of and a writer for NBC's hit series ER. Father Kieser feels very fortunate to have worked with Wells. The son of a socially progressive Episcopalian priest, Wells was able to bring to the script "a degree of theological sophistication rare in Hollywood," affirms Father Kieser.
Director of the film is Michael Rhodes, a Presbyterian, who has worked with Father Kieser on Romero as supervising producer and for 16 years as staff producer and director at Paulist Productions. More recently, Rhodes produced and directed CBS's acclaimed TV series Christy. Father Kieser is president of Paulist Pictures and the executive producer of Entertaining Angels. Six years ago, St. Anthony Messenger interviewed the priest-producer just as he was about to release Romero. The film, which told the story of Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of San Salvador, was the first major film Father Kieser had produced for commercial theaters.
Father Kieser told St. Anthony Messenger at the time that if the film were to be successful--or break even--his next big project would be a film about Dorothy Day. The fact that he has now done Entertaining Angels suggests that Romero had successfully accomplished its mission.
"We didn't make money on Romero," Father Kieser told me, "but we didn't lose any either. The movie paid for itself, enabling us to repay the $2.5 million we had borrowed to make the picture and to roll over the other million, which we had raised with Romero, for the producing of Entertaining Angels." The Catholic Communication Campaign has made significant contributions to both Romero and Entertaining Angels, adds Father Kieser.
Who Was Dorothy Day?
The new film tries to compress an answer to "Who was Dorothy Day?" into its less-than-two-hour time frame. To present an adequate portrait of Dorothy Day, the film had to convey two things: that Day was one of the most remarkable women and social reformers of the 20th century and that her search for God and spiritual meaning was intense.
The film concentrates especially on the 20-year span of Dorothy's life, from age 20 to 40. Says Father Kieser: "That was the period in which she faced the great crises of her life and made the decisions which shaped all else."
Scenes From the Film
Dorothy Day is 20 years old as the story begins in New York in 1917. When the audience first sees her, she is participating in a protest by a group of suffragettes, demonstrating for women's rights.
The following scenes from the movie give a good sense of the flow of the film, as well as highlights of Dorothy's life story:
* Dorothy is in the newsroom of the New York Call, the socialist newspaper for which she writes on a variety of social issues. We see her interacting vivaciously with writer and coworker Mike Gold.
* Dorothy hangs out in the Hell Hole, a smokey Bohemian saloon in Greenwich Village, New York. She talks late into the night about politics and romance with friends like playwright Eugene O'Neill, Mike Gold, and an assortment of actors, literary figures and revolutionaries.
* On a New York street one night, Dorothy and O'Neill converse about life, love and religion. O'Neill reverts to his Irish Catholic upbringing.
* The scene changes: Dorothy is in bed with Lionel Moise in his apartment. Lionel is one of regulars at the Greenwich Village hangout, a drinking buddy of Ernest Hemingway and a womanizer. He is Dorothy's first love partner in this film. The relationship leads to an abortion and ends abruptly and unhappily, to say the least.
* It's 1925. Dorothy starts to live at a small beach cottage on Staten Island. One day on the beach she encounters Forster Batterham, a caring man whom she had met earlier in Greenwich Village. They fall in love and enter a common-law marriage that brings them some happiness, but not without a good share of conflict as well.
* Dorothy is overwhelmed with joy when a daughter, Tamar, is born to them in 1927. But Dorothy's determination to have Tamar baptized--and to become a Catholic herself--leads to a wrenching breakup with Forster, who is opposed to organized religion.
* It's 1933. Dorothy is back on the streets of New York City. It's the time of the Great Depression. She witnesses the suffering of the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry. She also notes the seeming indifference of society to the plight of the poor, as well as the indifference shown to the poor by many in the Catholic Church, the faith community she has joined with considerable fervor.
* Visiting a church, Dorothy seeks an answer to the question: Why is the Catholic Church not showing a greater hunger for justice and for serving the poor? Praying before a crucifix, she asks Christ to show her what she is supposed to do.
* Almost immediately, at her brother's apartment in New York, Dorothy gets an answer to her prayer. There Dorothy is introduced to Peter Maurin, who is destined to become her very special friend and associate. Maurin was a poor French farmer by birth, who taught for a while as a Christian Brother and then emigrated to Canada. He wandered around as an itinerant laborer and eventually moved to New York. He lived a life of voluntary poverty after the example of St. Francis. His grasp of Catholic social teaching and his irrepressible desire to express his views was just what Dorothy needed.
* Peter is an ever-flowing fountain of ideas, but he needs Dorothy to put them into practice. He's the seer and she's the doer. He talks of creating houses of hospitality for the homeless and a newspaper for publishing their views on social reform. Both of these ideas will become realities in the near future. Dorothy quickly takes to the newspaper idea. After all, she knows a lot about journalism, labor and the struggle for justice.
* It's 1933, May 1, known as May Day in the labor movement. We see Dorothy and her friends carrying bundles of the very first edition of The Catholic Worker into New York's Union Square, the hub of many radical activities. Amidst banners and placards, a Communist parade is marching through the square. Dorothy climbs onto a park bench, waves a paper over her head and announces: "For those of you who think there is no hope, The Catholic Worker is for you! Only one penny!" The paper was a huge success from day one, and is still circulated widely today.
The final third of the movie, generally speaking, follows Dorothy's day-to-day struggles as she faces the challenges of maintaining a growing number of Catholic Worker houses. There are the needs of the poor, the disabled and the mentally ill who stream continuously through their doors. There are battles with building inspectors and with people opposed to her radical ideas and involvement in the anti-war movement--and with those who accuse her of being a Communist.
She has to deal with other issues too, like bringing up her daughter Tamar in the unstable atmosphere of a Catholic Worker house and Peter Maurin's failing health. Finally, she has to face moments of self-doubt, especially when a group of her own co-workers accuses her of arrogance and of forcing everyone to submit to her radical ideals and dictates.
Entertaining Angels is the story of a dedicated woman who must hold in balance her love for God and for the Church, on one hand, and the demands of her social conscience, on the other. The film shows her struggling through all these challenges and emerging as a heroic human being--and, according to many, a saint.
A Film for Our Times
Because Dorothy Day is an authentic American figure and, in the eyes of many, a true hero, Father Kieser believes that this filmed version of her story will make strong connections with U.S. society today.
"I think Dorothy Day is quintessentially American," says Father Kieser. "And in her life, she struggled with questions that, some 50 years later, would be the live-nerve issues of contemporary American society: feminism and women's rights, sexuality and commitment, abortion, single motherhood, the balancing of career and family responsibility, nonviolent conflict resolution, option for the poor, the jobless, the homeless, the hunger for transcendent meaning."
In 1991, Father Kieser wrote a hardcover autobiography about his film making career entitled Hollywood Priest: A Spiritual Struggle (Doubleday). A paperback version (Paulist Press) appeared in January 1996 under the title of Spiritual Journey of a Show-Business Priest, including a chapter on Entertaining Angels.
In the new chapter, Father Kieser asserts that Dorothy's life provides a message to which women and men can relate in our day. For it is "a spiritual journey which begins in Dorothy's confused self-indulgence but which flowers not only into self-discipline, self-acceptance and self-giving, but also into a joyous ego transcendence that enables Dorothy to forget all about herself in reaching out to God who lives in the poor."
The film will touch the lives of many modern viewers, believes Father Kieser, because it deals with questions with which many Americans are struggling today.
Another thing is certain. Many of the values and programs that Dorothy Day stood for already in the 30's and 40's--and which are underscored in the film--have found acceptance in the contemporary Church, both local and universal.
For example, her insistence that personal holiness and social action must go hand in hand received a strong confirmation in the worldwide Synod of Bishops' 1971 Statement Justice in the World: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of this world fully appear to us as an essential dimension of the preaching of the gospel."
Also, her tireless struggle to eliminate war and her pleas for economic justice received a kind of posthumous vindication when the U.S. Catholic bishops promulgated documents on The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986).
Though a filmed dramatization of the life of Dorothy Day can not be expected to tell her whole story, it may lead many viewers to her own writings or to one of several good biographies detailing her life.
In any case, the influence of Dorothy Day lives on in The Catholic Worker newspaper that, eight times a year, still reaches more than 100,000 readers. Even more, her memory remains alive in over 60 Catholic Worker houses scattered in cities around the country where poor and homeless people find shelter and food and a sense of human dignity.
'God Brought This Script to Me!'
An Interview With Moira Kelly
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Moira Kelly was the third of six children born and raised on Long Island, New York, by Irish immigrant parents, both devout Catholics.
Her first real encounter with Hollywood success came when she played two roles in Richard Attenborough's Academy Award-nominated Chaplin in 1992. More recently, she played a Harvard student in With Honors, starring Joe Pesci, and took a lead role in the sleeper hit Cutting Edge, a romantic tale about two figure-skating champions. Kelly was heard by millions as the voice of Nala, one of the leading characters in The Lion King, the Disney blockbuster. Her most recent work, apart from Entertaining Angels, and also opening soon is Nick Cassavetes's film Unhook the Stars with Gena Rowlands and Marisa Tomei.
In January of 1993, while filmmaker Father "Bud" Kieser was beginning to think about actresses and who might be good for the Dorothy Day role, he read an interview with Moira Kelly in The New York Times. The article, which concentrated on her role in Chaplin, stated that Kelly was an "ardent Roman Catholic" and an actress who frequently "dreams of playing Joan of Arc." Kelly's identification with this great Christian woman and saint caught Father Kieser's attention.
In his book, Spiritual Journey of a Show-Business Priest, Father Kieser writes of his initial instinct about Kelly based on the Times interview: "Here is an actress, I thought to myself, whose heroic archetype is close to the surface, something we needed in the Dorothy Day part. But I dismissed her as a possibility because she was at the time only 24."
A year or so later, however, after a long heart-to-heart conversation with Kelly, Father Kieser readjusted his view: "I could see that her faith was at the center of her life, that it was a fierce faith, passionate and ready for battle, that it permeated her entire life and that, because it did, she radiated a kind of exuberant Irish vitality that was magnetic. I could also see that she was bright--very bright--and that she, like Dorothy, marched to her own drummer, regardless of what other people might think. I could also see that she was passionate about the part...." Father Kieser offered Kelly the role, and she enthusiastically accepted it.
Still later, after watching Kelly's performance day after day during the shooting of the film, he observed: "In many ways, Moira is like Dorothy Day--intelligent, feisty, tough, fiercely independent and faith-filled. I have no doubt her portrayal of Dorothy Day arose from that place deep within herself where she also wrestles with God....I think Moira Kelly will be a major star."
St. Anthony Messenger's interview with Moira Kelly took place during a break in the shooting in late afternoon of April 27 at Broad Beach in Malibu, California. Everyone else on the crew had scurried off to get a bite to eat. The 27-year-old Kelly came over to where I was sitting and said she would like to do the interview right there--on the edge of the grass between the cottage and the sand dunes that sloped upward toward the beach. Instead of using the chair provided, she simply crouched down next to my folding chair and awaited the first question:
Q. Why did you decide to play Dorothy Day in this film?
A. Because it is the most amazing role that has ever come across my desk. And Dorothy Day's message is needed today.
Q. What is her message?
A. That we should be taking care of the less fortunate among us. Today, we are so afraid of ending up without anything that we surround ourselves with lots of material things and symbols of success. Dorothy's life suggests that we are here not to be successful but to be faithful--and to take care of those unable to take care for themselves. Peter Maurin once said that "the poor are the ambassadors of God" and they should be treated as such. If we took more time to help the less fortunate, we'd feel a lot more satisfied with our own lives. We wouldn't be grasping so much.
Q. Can you tell me about your own religious background.
A. Well, my parents are truly good people. They showed us--my brothers and sisters and me--through their own actions what it means to be Christian. For me, they are the strongest example of Christ on this planet.
Q. Did you attend Catholic schools?
A. Yes, in New York, up until the eighth grade, and then I went to public school, because we didn't have the money for all of us to stay in private schools. At college level, however, I again attended a Catholic School. [She paid her own way through Marymount Manhattan College in New York City].
Q. Has your Catholic background and education helped shape your faith?
A. They have helped my adult faith in a lot of ways. Growing up Catholic has been a gift. Being in the movie business is hard. There are a lot of battles to face and if I didn't have that religious core--that base to turn to--I would be truly lost. At times I see other people who seem adrift because they don't have a spiritual belief or a spiritual anchor.
There are so many temptations--to escalate your career or make the money come in faster or seek out the star position. When you look seriously at such a path, however, you have to ask yourself: "Is this really where I want to be?" I always say, "No, I don't think that is where God wants me to be and I'm going to listen to what God wants!"
I truly believe that God brought this Entertaining Angels script to me, because for a long time--up until I was in the eighth grade--I wanted to be a nun. When I started working on my first picture, I went to a priest and said, "I'm still torn between becoming a nun and working in the film business." The priest said, "Do you think that maybe this is the medium that God wants to use to get the message across?"
Well, for five years I have been battling with this and waiting for the right character and script to show up. Then lo and behold, here comes Entertaining Angels! So this script is truly a gift!
Q. Some actresses might have hesitated to take this role because it is religious. Why didn't you hesitate?
A. It is definitely spiritual--and it is a Catholic film--but the message is universal. The audience will get that. They will relate to the journey Dorothy Day goes through. We all go through constant transitions--emotionally, physically, mentally--before we reach the point of truth in our lives. We see Dorothy as human. We see her reach the lowest of lows. We see her make the mistakes that anyone can make--whether he or she be Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, you name it. We are all human and capable of choosing the wrong path.
But it is facing that choice and taking responsibility for that and moving on and upward that is the important thing. We seem to think that when things go wrong in our lives that we are being punished. But such difficulties are actually lessons for us. And we should be grateful for them because they teach us what we should be doing.
Q. So your taking this role has been an important step in your life journey and an opportunity for growth?
A. Absolutely. It's definitely an opportunity for growth in my faith. I've always found myself struggling in society and struggling with religion, trying to be a devout Catholic and doing the right things according to my beliefs. And the struggle takes place in a society that is going so fast and grabbing at so much. Ours is such a me-me-me society that it is truly a battle. Doing this film has provided me with the example of a committed Christian woman--and perhaps with some inner strength that I can tune in to when I really need that extra help.
Q. Are there any ways that your own life has prepared you for this role?
A. Well, my mom always said that as a child I was so dramatic--and I always had a real fear of not being able to save the world! I wanted to come up with the answer that was going to make the rest of the world happy--that would make us all come together in community. This was the battle going on within me.
When I first read the script, I saw a lot in Dorothy's life that paralleled my own life. It was both interesting and very frightening to recognize how close to this woman I truly was in a lot of ways. Taking this role allowed me to feel all those things I had felt before in my own life. I was able to bring them to the surface and finally put them to rest--to find answers to them by walking in someone else's shoes. I truly had the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a woman who in many ways was like me. To be able to see her journey and her outcome has given me hope and faith.
Q. In many films there is some part of a person's character that "develops" or grows stronger. What aspect of Dorothy Day's life shows the most development in this film?
A. Her realization of her goal in life. She always felt that she was haunted by Christ--and by the poor. And she always felt a strong need to do something about it. And I think her greatest accomplishment was coming face to face with what was her true mission in life--and coming to realize that this is her journey, this is her job, this is the truth in her life that she can not turn away from.
Q. And just what was that job or mission?
A. Caring for the poor. Caring for the poor.
Q. The film covers Dorothy's earlier years, including a number of love affairs. Are the romantic liaisons of the younger Dorothy important for understanding her later journey?
A. Yes. Oh, yes--because her choice of men is very interesting. It is almost self-destructive. And that gives you a great insight into who she is. It gives you insight into her relationship with her father and men in general. She knew, for example, what Lionel was all about. And yet she continued to do everything in her power to hold on to him. It was her own insecurity saying to her: "If I let him go, there is not going to be another--I have to hold on to this man even though he is not the right one."
Such behavior suggests she was a very desperate woman at that point. She is eventually led to seek a different kind of relationship--her relationship with God and her friendship with Peter Maurin.
Q. Do you think that Dorothy Day's rejection of her earlier romantic relationships indicate that she turned sour and negative on human romantic love?
A. I don't think she turned sour. And I don't think it was a conscious rejection. She simply realized that the love she was searching for was not going to be found in a man. It was going to be found from within and in her relationship with God
Q. Do you think that Dorothy really found fulfillment in her relationship with God?
A. Absolutely. Absolutely. I think she truly felt love when she found God.
Q. How was this manifested in her actual life?
A. I would say in her strength. I see this strength revealed in her being able to pull herself up from the situation with Forster, in her being left with her daughter and yet coping bravely. She finds the strength, and she finds it through Christ. That is the love that she has been searching for. It gives her the ability to face herself and be able to stand up for herself. She does not need to rely on the relationship of a man to make her feel whole.
Q. So it is not a matter of Dorothy denying the value of human love?
A. No. Human love comes in so many different ways. I'm sure she found it in the faces of those people that she fed and the people that worked with her at the Catholic Worker. I'm sure she found it in private meditation and prayer. I'm sure she found it in the face of her daughter. I think she truly came in touch with it in all the different areas of love that are available to us, not just the physical, not just in human, man-to-woman relationships.
Q. In your opinion, what was Dorothy Day's greatest struggle in this film?
A. Abandonment. She always felt abandoned by her father, by the men in her life and, at one point, by God. She also had a problem with taking on too much and expecting herself to carry the whole load, rather than putting it in God's hands and saying: "I will just be your instrument; you work through me."
But Dorothy's fear of abandonment is really a strong thing in her life. The title of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, says it all. It is certainly a fear I can appreciate and sympathize with greatly.
Q. Do you think your growing knowledge of Dorothy Day and your playing this role in the movie will affect your own life and future?
A. We'll see! (Laughing a bit mischievously)We'll see!
Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
is a Franciscan priest, ordained in 1963. He has an M.A. in English from Xavier University, Cincinnati, and has taught English in the United States and in the Philippines. He is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He is also the author of a new book,Lights: Revelations of God's Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press). For more information, see our products section. This article originally appeared in the January 1996 print edition of St. Anthony Messenger.