Doubt: a Parable (2008)

*** COMPLETE AND THROUGHGOING SPOILERS ***

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t begin a review with an adverb. Ordinarily, I would watch a movie, share my thoughts, and walk on. In the case of Doubt, however, I missed the movie in the theater and now, weeks later, I’m still waiting for the DVD. The rips I’ve downloaded from the internets aren’t of any use. Why did AXXO pass on Doubt while ripping Drillbit Taylor? It is not given to me to know. [Much later: it’s all over the web now.]

In the meantime, I read John Patrick Shanley’s Miramax screenplay for the film version of Doubt.  Having watched a trailer before reading the script, I did have La Streep and PSH acting the roles in my head, but acting them my way, perhaps not theirs. The script seemed a little thin to me, for a play that won the drama Pulitzer and a Tony in 2005.

What I know about the drama Pulitzer:

1. They can’t just give it to Angels in America every year, over and over.
2. Seemingly thin scripts can in fact hide greatness, q.v., Our Town.
3. Roxanne Pulitzer posed for Playboy; I liked Paloma Picasso better. Such was the cultural training of my youth.
7. It took four years for Doubt to catch up with Proof.
8. Shaley received the prize but Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne knocking heads might have won it for him.
5. “Doubt” shares its honor with, among others, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” In the same way, Mike Tyson shares his former title with, among others, Joe Lewis, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali.
4. The prize isn’t awarded every year. Looking for a book idea? Write one explaining why the award was withheld in the years 1919, 1942, 1944, 1947, 1951, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1986, 1997, and 2006.*

* Of course, in my conception, the book would be as catty as possible. Politics, rumors, scandalous rumors, and rumors that are god-damned lies welcomed.

The drama-prize candidate is selected each year by a jury of five, one academic and four critics, based upon their reading of the script, or so I have always understood it. The Pulitzer Committee must then approve the jury’s choice. In 1963, the Committee declined to approve Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because of the play’s sex and cussing. In 1986, the Committee overruled the jury’s choice of the CIVIL warS, which as far as I know has never been performed in full (your homework: find out why). From these two examples, we can infer that the Pulitzer Committee’s overrulings are generally wrongheaded. The year after Doubt, no Pulitzer was awarded. Ongoing controversy over these awards led to the creation of The New York Drama Critics’ Circle, which, as it happens, also awarded Doubt the prize in 2006, and also did not award an American prize the following year. 2006 is taken by many as a lackluster year, but I’ve also heard more than one playgoer complain that if it isn’t a New York production with Big Names in it, it won’t be picked and may not even be considered. 27 plays were considered in ’06 and of the three finalists chosen from these, none received a majority of votes from the 17 committee members. So maybe your no-prize book will turn out to be a bust, due to a surfeit of no-prize plays over the years; but don’t let mere facts stop you, not in the weedy garden of the arts.

The drama jury members who picked Doubt in 2005: Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune—chair), Fran Dorn (University of Texas—Austin), Robert Hurwitt (San Francisco Chronicle), Charles Isherwood (New York Times), and Wendy Wasserstein (playwright). I wrote Phillips, Dorn, Hurwitt, and Isherwood, asking them an assortment of questions about their choice. (Wasserstein died of cancer in 2006.)

Shanley added “a Parable” to the play’s title, “Doubt, a Parable,” after its introduction. My first thought was that once he had let his play cool a bit after baking, he too felt that it was thin (or short on filling under the crust, to continue the baking metaphor), and everybody knows that a parable can skimp on characterization and plot in the service of loftier goals. Just a thought. A parable is “a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters.” Do we need a parable Pulitzer? Puts me in mind of that famously short-lived category, the haiku Pulitzer. Jonathon Livingston Seagull for fable Pulitzer! 38 weeks on the NTY Best Seller list and still in print! But I digress.

What do I mean by “thin”? Print out the script and read the climatic scene, pages 81 to 94. OK, wait. Let me back up and summarize the plot, in case you haven’t been out of your cave since the weather turned cold. The Bronx. 1964. Catholic School. Not like Sacred Heart, where my kids went. Old School. The NBs still wear their habits. But Vatican II has happened. Some younger priests are leaning new-school; the school principal, Sister Aloyisius (Aloyisius, the patron saint of students) is old school. Father Flynn is the friendly young chaplain. He is or is not molesting the only African-American (male) student in the school, the population of which is otherwise exclusively Irish/Italian. Come to think of it, though the years have passed, Sacred Heart did recently give the boot to its own chaplain, who looked like the popular graphic version of Jesus Christ and acted a bit too much like him as well.

Sister A gets on Father F’s case. Shanley: “I was very interested in having a powerful character who was certain she was right chasing down a course of action that was going to do a lot of harm if she was wrong and investigating what it was to live in a world that was a clash between certainty and ambiguity.” Sister Aloyisius knows that Father Flynn has abused the boy, though she has no proof. Shanley: “Oh, I do not profess to know the end of the play. The end of the play takes place after the play is over, when you go out and have a drink and you have a fight with your wife about what happened.” (Schwarzenegger to his wife in Raw Deal: “You should not drink and bake.”) The author has said a lot more than this, in numerous interviews.

Shanley has set himself the task here of walking the line between hints of Flynn’s guilt and hints of his innocence, so that we the audience might lean one way or the other but cannot ever know the truth, because the truth isn’t included in this, Shanley’s creation – a creation that he ends with several ambiguous flourishes. Get it? It’s a whirligig. It goes round and round and it’s fun to watch for a while and then it stops where it started and you go do something else. It’s a gizmo. It’s a construction, and the key problems in it and Shanley’s solutions to those problems are to be found in the pages of the script, and they are mechanical. The Rubik’s Cube Pulitzer.

I also took strong exception on first reading to pages 65 through 78 – that is, to the scene in which Sister A meets with the boy’s mother and in which the mother, hearing that her son is most probably being buggered by his priest, accepts the fact as she keeps her eyes on the prize, a good high school for the boy upon his graduation from St. Nicholas. Shanley the Irishman writes a black family into his play. Limns the family: physically abusive, dangerous father not to be reasoned with or disobeyed; hard-working, saintly but morally primitive mother; bent, wine-drinking son. If Shanley had been black, writing the boy and his mom as Irish, would we then instead have here a drunken, violent, bog-trotting dad; religious, potato-cooking mom with a straw broom in her hand and a sheepy look in her eyes; boy ready to break your knee with a stick? And how does an actress come to deserve an Oscar nomination for 13 pages of work in a film? Parable Oscar. (Well, the part did win Adriane Lenox a Tony.) Reality check: This is it? The best drama 2005 had to offer? Is culture zero-sum? If so, where went the talent that would allow a total equal to that of Tennessee Williams? YouTube?

Whoa! Dude! Why the hate? Vitriol! Is it a Hitler speech I’m readin? Are ye turnin on yer own kind then, ladee? Buck up, boyo. Go pull yer Finnegan’s Wake back out of the firegrate. Sober up. You’re worse than himself this way.

Maybe so, but Pineapple Express had nine times the plot that Doubt does.

Ye could use a little less Pineapple Express yerself, at that, at that. Write JMJ at the top of every page of this review, with a fountain pen. What said the jury, boyo?

Answering my questions about script vs staging, Michael Phillips’ response included:  “I’ve happily done jury duty for the Pulitzers four different times, and I must say, it stunned me to realize how the various jurors approached the commitment differently. One made it a point never, ever to read the scripts–for him, if he couldn’t see it on stage, in New York, in time for the voting, it wasn’t eligible. (Ridiculous. A New Yorker, needless to say.) Others believed differently. And yet the overseers, the members of the Pulitzer board to whom the individual juries report to, are the ones making the final decision, and there’s a pretty clear pattern of awards (in two out of three cases) going to plays currently or recently on view in New York. Such was the case with “Doubt.” But I have to say, that year, nothing else came close.”

Unlike me with my script, Charles Isherwood picked up some big ideas in Doubt as he sat in the playgoing audience, ideas conjured into being by the story and its dialog, ideas more profound than most that he had encountered in that theater seat through many a previous year, ideas, Isherwood said, hinted at by that “a Parable” in the title, ideas about taking refuge in certainty when reality is too complicated. Or, as I like to think of it, Bush vs Obama. Isherwood took Sister A’s final moment quite seriously. He also detected no irony in the play. From this I deduce that Cherry Jones and Bri­an F. O’Byrne battled to a draw in the performance that he attended.

Fran Dorn told me that she went strictly by the script. Some of the other things she said put the idea of writing a book about Pulitzer politics into my head.

Robert Hurwitt loved the play in its original staging, but when he saw it again in a larger theater, it lost some of its depth for him. Is this an argument against the script on the page, or for it, or neither? Don’t stage a close argument between four individuals on a stage at the 50-yard line of Brillo Coliseum?

So I went back and read the play again. 94 pages. 90 minutes on the boards with no intermission. The movie runs 104 minutes. This time I picked up a sweet spirit present in the thing. Nobody gets hurt here. No violence. No evil or despicable characters. What was eating me when I read Doubt the first time? Shanley is writing from the heart. He dedicated the play to the Sisters of Charity and in particular to his first-grade teacher, Sister Margaret McEntee, who was the model for the young nun in the movie and who acted as a consultant on the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins used the Sisters’ school, the College of Mount Saint Vincent, and St. Anthony in the Bronx, to stand in for the play’s St. Nicholas. “I’ve met many nuns as a result of writing this play,” says Shanley. “And my first grade teacher, Sister James, who is still alive and still teaching, was my guest for the opening night, and she’s just a doll and incredibly intelligent, and one of many invisible women out there living a life of service to others and they deserve to have our acknowledgement and our thanks.” Nun love.

However, a pure heart in the writer does not guarantee the strength of ten in the script, even if the writer is aiming higher than the construction of a gizmo. Also, let’s stamp out the use of “purposefully” to mean “purposely.” And, to maintain perspective, let’s remember that Shanley in his career also wrote the screenplay for Crichton’s Congo. My daughter came back from that one and said only, “Heads roll.”

The sweetness-of-spirit thing did remind me of Moonstruck (1987), for which Shanley won a screenplay Oscar. I watched Moonstruck again last night and, for me, it holds up, but for the fact that we now know where Cher was heading when she made the movie, her arc over the following 20 years, so that her Oscar performance then loses some of its magic now, even though at the time she  really was young, instead of just trying to look that way. Moonstruck. Shanley writing Italian. What is it with this guy? A couple of minor twists in the movie, but again, simple. No irony. Straight down the rails. I’m thinking that with the Oscars and Tony and Pulitzer, Shanley is blessed with the luck of the Irish. Moonstruck’s screenplay beat out “Au Revoir les Enfants.” Is that luck, or the work of Satan paying for a purchased soul? Perhaps the seeming simplicity of Moonstruck and Doubt is a product or an artifact of that lack of irony in both works, irony often passing for moral depth and complexity these days.

Doubt begins with Father Flynn speaking to the congregation: “What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.” And this applies to the movie how? I don’t notice any comity between doubters in the script. Sister A, of course, is not one of the community of doubters, being consistently certain, although she does provide an antithetical doubter’s bookend to Father F’s opening remarks in the last sentence of the play. Perhaps, as Shanley says somewhere, the principal object of the play is to demonstrate that doubt allows for growth and change while premature certainty leads only to a dead end, with his parable directed not at the church but at those who insist on absolutes in society at large. And this applies to the movie how? What growth and change as a consequence of doubt is he referring to? Ours? Doesn’t doubt vis a vis Father F’s culpability lead to the possibility not of growth but of continued sodomy? Isn’t Shanley’s argument in favor of doubt here, against right-wing Bushian certainty, rather like sending Linus over to argue with Rush Limbaugh?. There is a legitimate dialectic at play, traditional Church observance vs Vatican II, but Shanley marries the former to spinsterhood and blind unreasoning faith, and the latter, even more unhappily, to pedophilia and pederasty gone wild. I must have been absent from the rectory the day that that particular memo was delivered.

Now hang on. Let’s think this through. We don’t have our arms around this thing yet. The play was written in 2005. From the comments of others and of Shanley himself, yes, I assume, as many do, that the play is political. In a simple interpretation, Sister A = George Bush and the Right Wing. This does not mean that PSH = the Left Wing. Rather, Father F represents, for example, the Iraq situation – that is, the problem with which certainty is confronted. So that if Sister A turns out to be correct, proof or no proof, the play must tend to validate her position. But Shanley is on record to the contrary, and structures his play so as to maintain an ambiguity in the situation from start to finish, with the denouement functioning as a criticism of Sister A and her certainty. That is, because of Sister A’s actions, Father F’s innocence or guilt is allowed to continue unresolved. If innocent, he then suffers from the unfair turmoil and suspicion that Sister A has created in his life; if guilty, he remains unchastised for his behavior and free to continue his misdeeds. Had Sister A been in doubt, even a little bit, she would have proceeded differently, more carefully, more politically, perhaps to a place of resolution. Or, more probably, given the mores of that day, her suspicions, delivered up the chain of command, would have been buried. With our present-day knowledge, we know that this did in fact happen over and over again.

Since Sister A was not burdened by doubt, however, we don’t need to contemplate the historical record. And the play is written to minimize the fact that none of us choose what we know and what we don’t know. Knowing is not volitional; we know some things; we don’t know other things; it’s automatic. Sister A knows this particular thing. In TV and media today, we’ve been trained to accept the fact that protagonists frequently know things without reason or proof. Characters spring into action even as their sergeant in the precinct or the mayor in his office at City Hall hectors and threatens them. They have precognitive talents, they see the future. “He’s lying,” they say, and they ain’t lying. But Shanley as writer and director can’t allow Sister A to prevail in our minds, and neither can the actors, because if so, then the fact that Father F slips away in the end becomes ironic, a miscarriage of justice, an indictment of priests and their sexual predations. And Sister A can easily prevail in this play. If La Streep convinces us, with our viewer’s training acting as a handicap in her favor, that she does know what she knows, or if Father F acts his part a little lightly on his feet, or if the boy (the boy in the movie – he isn’t seen in the play) appears, well, somewhat used (which we might expect, to justify his mother’s acceptance of the situation and fears for his safety at public school or with his father), the goose of the play is cooked. Doubt becomes a simple tale of moral corruption. On the other hand, if La Streep comes across as crazy or embittered and out for blood, the movie might strike us as similar to that scene that has become common in movies: someone, in this case PSH, steps off the curb, usually in the middle of a sentence, and is struck and carried offscreen to the right (or to the left in England) in the blink of a frame by a passing bus or taxi, which in this case would be La Streep.

We can think of the core of the play as a balance scale, with Shanley adding a bit of guilt to one pan and then a bit of innocence to the other, then more guilt, then more innocence, keeping the loads equal, with Amy Adams present onscreen to instantiate the instrument in her performance.  The strategy has something in common with the avoidance of the “reveal” in a romantic comedy, which if known by the protagonists would settle all issues prematurely. For this reader, Shanley made a major misstep in the script during this doling-out. There is a moment in the climatic argument when Sister A says “I’ll hound you” and Father F, rather than defending himself with specifics, plays the “You have no right to exceed your authority” card. To me this jumped off the page at me like a confession of guilt on the priest’s part. I’m looking forward to seeing how PSH sells me on that line. Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne, and director Doug Hughes, walked the line and managed to leave the issue of guilt in doubt; will La Streep and PSH, directed by Shanly himself, do so as well? Shanley has said that La Streep approached every argument in the movie as if it were a grudge match; La Streep demurs and may bear a grudge against Shanley for saying so. It seems to me that both actors and the director would need to work closely together on a strategy that leaves the audience situated in incertitude when the house lights come up.

Now the Doubt trailer has just reappeared on the front page of YouTube. I’ve watched it again. PSH doing the “You have no right” line is in it; it’s obvious, as I mentioned above, that playing Father F as effeminate would be deadly to the balance of the movie, but watching PSH erupt onscreen, doing that anger thing that he does, I realize that there are a lot of other ways to go wrong with this parable, and protesting too much might be one of them. The balance is all in the Sister A/Father F chemistry. For example, every so often, the spouse here gets some notion and confronts me with it and, in the case of my innocence, I defend myself, but often have the feeling that I’m defending myself so badly that an audience would never believe me, much less the spouse; but that might be one clever way to sell Father F’s innocence – the weak-and-unable-to-defend-myself ploy. Not PLH in this movie, though, not with his neck veins standing out as he verges on apoplexy. It’s some other actor who would work it by holding back the anger.

Another word on this doubt thing. In a film review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat: “The drama challenges us to take more seriously both the mysteries of the human personality and the uncertainty which lies at the core of our days and doings. Love and doubt converge in the practice of not knowing. And that is the true spiritual path. The world is drenched in mystery and no matter what we do, we can never cut through it all and grab hold of the answer, the one explanation. “X” factors abound, upsetting our rational conclusions. Best to just say “I don’t know” and take comfort in the reality that you are not alone.” Huh? The issue here is one of potential child abuse. Where does the “practice of not knowing” take us? We can never grab hold of the answer? What if somebody is grabbing hold of something that he oughtn’t? How many of us think, or feel, that uncertainty lies at the core of our days and doings? Most of my doings are based on the certainties of heavy traffic at 8 in the morning, movement in my lower regions before lunch, and all local teams missing the playoffs yet again this year. Love and doubt don’t converge in the practice of not knowing but in the practice of jealousy, stress, and boredom. On the other hand, asking a priest, at least in the 50s and early 60s, why this and why that got you the response that faith was the answer, faith was required, answers to the questions would not otherwise be forthcoming. Faith was the motive force leading to salvation. Doesn’t faith require doubt? Someone somewhere commented that faith and doubt are opposites, but if you know, you don’t need faith, do you? I’m asking you, which is why I’m using “you.” Asking you rhetorically; no need to write me. What is the opposite of doubt? Not-doubt. Certainty? Can you have faith in your certainty? Can you be certain about a fact but doubt that certainty, if not the fact? Can you feel certain but have no faith in your certainty, so that you believe what God wants you to believe, but without faith? Are questions like these connected to my absence of faith, or my doubt, or my certainty in my non-belief?

Sister A has an aphorism for every occasion. One of these that raises questions: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.” Since Sister A is full of aphorisms, is this just a throwaway line to keep the young Sister in line? Or is Sister A saying that as a warrior for God, it is sometimes necessary to step away from the peace, enlightenment, and forgiveness of the Trinity and take up Satan’s weapons, anger and aggression, to put down the evildoers, as a Michael of the Faith? That is, the ends justify the means? Or what?

I was listening to Mick LaSalle (S.F. Chronicle’s lead reviewer) in a modest podcast rant about the evils of comparing book to movie; he was saying something to the effect that the movie in your head will always be better than the movie on the screen. Comparing the two in a review is a waste of time, though it felt clever to him while he was doing it. So forth. I suddenly wondered if reading a script and then going to its movie might have something in common with comparing book to movie, and I called up to ask him. In retrospect, reading a script is quite different from reading a book that is later made into a movie. I was surprised when LaSalle replied that he could only recall two times when he read a screenplay before seeing the movie. Especially considering that his wife is a playwright, I expected him to be a frequent reader of scripts and screen plays. The two that he named were Ninotchka and Pulp Fiction. He was familiar with Ninotchka simply because it had been written up with a shot-by-shot commentary frequently used in film classes, and when he saw the movie he found himself bemused as the figures onscreen actually moved. He read Pulp Fiction because he was to interview QT before seeing the movie. He knew the cast list but as he watched the movie, he discovered that he had assigned all the actors to the wrong parts as he read the screenplay; plus, scenes in the screenplay that seemed to him integral to the movie were cut in the theatrical release. In sum, nothing here to inform me about Doubt, as I was unlikely to confuse the parts assigned to La Streep and PSH as I read the script.

Hmm. I see that Doubt has returned to the metroplex. Must be back for Oscar season. Off I go to watch it! And not to lower the tenor of the discussion, but speaking of nuns and Amy Adams, see page 10 of the script:

INT. THE BEDROOM – DAWN
Sister James has bathed. She’s partially dressed but still
working on her bonnet. She puts on her rosary.

Satan tempts me with expectations even as I head for the cineplex.

Note that nobody says “You’re off to see Hamlet? Don’t bother. You’ve already ruined it by reading the script. You should have just let the actors bring the pages to life on your blank slate of a brainpan.” I’m treating Doubt as if it were a work that is worth something, not as if it were mere entertainment. My regret is that I’ll post this before listening to Shanley’s own commentary.

At this point, imagine Bach’s Mass No. 1 in F Major, BWV 233, while you wait. Ba ba dum! Dum deedle doo deedle dum, ba dum! Baaa ba dum!

OK, I’m back.

What a pleasure to just settle into my seat in an almost-empty brand-new theater and finally watch the damn movie. I enjoyed it from start to finish. Lots to look at and listen to. The movie felt a little earlier than ’64 to me, but not by much, and so what? Back in the day, 90% of Catholic school faculty and staff consisted of men and women in the orders; at present, 95% of the staff is lay, which means that they need to be paid. There used to be 12,000 Catholic schools, a large percentage of them catering to lower- and lower-middle-class populations. Now more and more of them are converting to charter, privitizing, going forward with the moral but not the financial support of the Church.

Hoffman and Streep and Adams and Davis put on an acting class; let me at that community stage – I want to act! Just in the beginning I noticed that I was focusing a bit on the unlikely babealiciousness of Adams, but my companion murmured to me that there were plenty of cute nuns back then, something that I must have forgotten. Then too, Adams laid on the simpiness pretty thick, but hell, she’s a beautiful young woman smothered in a habit; doesn’t that automatically signify that she’s a raving neurotic? It appears that Adams thought so. Hoffman was born three years after the year in which the play is set. Holy cow, he’s forty-one already. Makes a perfect priest. Streep was Streep being Streep and relishing it. Unless I was imagining it when I wrote the fact in my notes, her enjoyment tempered her angst, so I was not surprised when Viola Davis said in her Filmspotting #246 interview how much fun Streep had on set. Streep launched the part playing Sister Mary Stigmata but became increasingly human as the movie wore on. Davis I’ve seen in 14 movies; she sure got this one right; refer to the interview for her thoughts on preparing for the role. Shanley took a chance writing that scene but it worked for me; the crucial interchange happens fast in an overlapping back and forth between Streep and Davis, emotion dialled up all the way, the scene over too quick for us viewers to start asking questions.

I was wondering on the way over to the plex whether Streep and Hoffman are currently so overexposed for me that they wouldn’t be able to disappear into their parts no matter what they did. As Streep exchanged her Prada for a dowdy habit and her Cle de Peau Beaute for ELF,  could she submerge herself in the part enough to prevent me from watching Streep the actress assaying a new accent, recently arrived from Madison County, say, not some nun I don’t know? Well, in the event she remained Streep for me, Streep in person onscreen, apotheosis Streep, but lo also became Sister A as well. No holding back; make em laugh, make em cry, make em shake their heads and come back for more. I’ve watched so much Hoffman lately, the mind reels. He’s a national treasure, or am I just invoking Nicholas Cage when I say that? Watching Hoffman in his Roman collar, I realized that I never quite bought Crosby as Father O’Malley, much as I loved his movies. Shanley’s intent, when he set out to write Doubt, was to begin with the Nun and Priest stereotypes and then gradually real the real people beneath. Cherry Jones played sister A as physically weak but spiritually strong. No weakness in the 59-year-old Streep; I kept noticing how strong her wrists looked. Before watching the movie, I had the notion that as a play, Doubt begs for restraint, for cool. So that briefly, in the theater, i wondered what Streep was thinking? Shanley as director wouldn’t know any better, but Streep could have grabbed Hoffman by the nape and ordered him to throttle it back and then done the same herself, but no, this Sister A onscreen – who is supposed to be a woman who has spent her life devoted to denial, denial of love, denial of pleasure, denial of coughdrops – show me steel, show me ice, show me the cold vacuum of deep space, not Miss Muffet chewing the carpet. Shanley also takes the tether off Hoffman and we wind up with two overheated actors who know they’re delivering Pulitzer lines that, with enough heat, perhaps can be transmuted into Oscar gold (didn’t happen). You want certainty? Picture John Wayne as Sister A. Montgomery Clift as Father F – sure he’s crazy, tortured, sweating, bug-eyed, but innocent. Or Bing Crosby as Father F. Innocent. Audrey Hepburn or Katherine Hepburn as Sister A, vs der Bingle? How do you pick a winner in an argument between two screen gods?

But this movie wasn’t about that. This movie was about Shanley’s youth, the Bronx, the Sisters and Mothers and Fathers. This was about winter color, grays but somehow still warm with memory, warm wtih nostalgia and love and, by God, entertainment.

I also wondered whether opening out the play on the big screen would help it, harm it, or have no effect. Neighborhood, kids, weather, church and school. The play consists of four individuals talking to each other for an hour and a half. In the original production, the sets are small and close. No children are seen, so that there is a certain problem-play, abstract quality to the proceedings. In the film, the protagonists are dropped into a bustling Bronx school full of children. The abuse issue is no longer academic. A specific child’s welfare is at issue. The child does some mooning (not that kind) around the priest. This coming-to-life of the situation affects the artificial parableness of the play; without the movie’s constant reminder of children qua children, the proceedings onstage were better able to remain an exercise in thought.

Anyway, do we the audience know for sure, or think that we know for sure, after watching this film incarnation of Doubt, that Father F is or is not guilty? If so, the dynamics of the play are altered, displaced from the consequences of ambiguity in the face of certainty to questions of moral justice and the consequences of the priest’s behavior. The whistle-blower in the case, Sister A, is dismissed from consideration, regardless of the original baselessness of her accusations. When the script presents the wine and locker accusations and the priest’s verbal reactions, does Hoffman clothe those reactions in ambiguous anger or innocent surprise or one of a hundred other takes that swing the balance back from guilt? Yes, he does indeed. Clever writing by Shanley. Does the kid have to show gay for his mom’s stance to be effective? Well, he doesn’t and didn’t have to. Was there too much focus on suspect Father F traits like, for example, his thoughts and feelings re long fingernails? So that Doubt morphs into a movie in the genre that includes films like Shadow of a Doubt and The Interview – man seems innocent, isn’t? No. Someone complained to me that Father F was made to seem more guilty because when Sister A tells him that she saw him grab William London’s arm, he doesn’t defend himself. In the play he explains his action, because the action is never shown, but in the film we see him do it, to check the boy’s fingernails, and his silence on the matter later with Sister A seems to me to strengthen him, not weaken him. Shanley knew that the final confrontation between Sister A and Father F was his last chance (almost) to make things come out even. He used 31 camera setups. In the scene, we know that Mrs. Miller has told Sister A that her son is gay, but Father F does not know this. We also know that the boy probably confessed to Father F this fact, but Father F is constrained to keep the fact to himself. Forces swirling. Father F no longer able to step into Sister A’s office and sit casually in her chair as if he belonged there, as her natural superior.

I heard more than once from others that the movie ended with the issue of guilt/innocence resolved for them. Not for me. For me, Shanley and his cast did not fall off the tightrope. There was smoke, perhaps there was fire, perhaps not. My bet: Father F had misbehaved in the past but not in the current situation.

Last word re Sister A’s last words: “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” (1) I take this to be Shanley’s last-minute buckling to the pressures of public taste in drama in the modern sensibility – that is, the mandatory inclusion of irony as a base element in any concoction, which is what this play is. Or, (2)these last words are an author’s last-minute bright idea, a cry to the prize board, pleading for forgiveness for the thinness of the material but asking for the prize anyway. Or, (3) Shanley is telling us here that Sister A has been on a journey throughout this movie, a journey that has taken her from a desert of self-indulgent, selfish abnegation and selflessness of certainty to an uncomfortable paradise of doubt in the closer presence of God. A final message of hope. Shanley’s gift to the Sisters of his youth. Or, (4) Sister A has lied, blackmailed, and bullied, and this final wracking doubt is her punishment for her actions. Or, (5) perhaps this is the last bit of weight Shanley drops into the balance on the innocence side, in case you’re leaning toward Father F.’s guilt. In any case, Streep has caught some critical flak for not adumbrating this outburst, even in the smallest way. But I think that in fact she did, especially when she agreed with Father F. that she had sinned mightily in the past. That confession entered into the guilt/innocence calculus going forward. For these last words, did Shanley just refuse to put down the pen in time? Did Hannibal Lector apologize for his diet at the fadeout?

Am I crazy or is Doubt an old-fashioned feelgood movie?

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