‘Popes’ High Hopes: Oscar Eyes Rare Trip to the Vatican

In 91 years, no one has ever been Oscar-nominated for playing a pope. That could change this year if Jonathan Pryce (lead actor) and Anthony Hopkins (supporting) are recognized for the crowd-pleasing “The Two Popes,” as, respectively, Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI.

The film depicts their mutual wariness, which turns into friendship. And thanks to director Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten, it also packs a punch in dealing with the men’s very different socio-political backgrounds.

The Two Popes” sounds like a TV movie that would be shown on cable every Easter. In fact, Italian TV has done a bevy of papal biopics over the years, and America has had a hand in several, including Jon Voight (!) in the 2005 “Pope John Paul II” miniseries.

But Vatican City has rarely appeared on the big screen. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965) and “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968) were both intended as major-studio tentpoles that didn’t live up to expectations. They collectively earned seven Oscar noms, but won none.

George Arliss’ best-actor Oscar for the 1929 “Disraeli” started an enduring trend: nominations for actors playing world leaders. From Charles Laughton (1933’s “The Private Life of Henry VIII”) through Peter O’Toole (two nominations as kings) to last year’s Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), there have been 29 nominations for depictions of royals. Oscars have gone to actors playing two other British prime ministers (Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill), U.S. presidents (Abraham Lincoln) and Indian social activists (Mahatma Gandhi). But no popes.
Pryce told me he agreed to do it because of McCarten, Meirelles and Hopkins. “But it was a great responsibility; could I be honest to the character? Of course everyone knows he’s the pope, but I had to read it as a character in a script — a portrayal of a man trying to accomplish things, a man with a troubled, political past. I focused on the person he was, and then the person who allowed himself to be seen as a more open and benevolent figure.”

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During the Depression and World War II, studio execs knew that audiences wanted inspirational characters. Oscar wins went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as priests in “Going My Way” in 1944; the following year, there were noms for Gregory Peck in “The Keys of the Kingdom” and Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s”; and in 1946, for Rosalind Russell as “Sister Kenny.” There were a few other Oscar nominations since then, including Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story” and Jason Miller in “The Exorcist.”

However, starting in the 1980s, jittery stockholders exerted more control over studios’ output and controversial topics were generally avoided. And even though the majority of people around the world annually tell pollsters of their belief in God or a higher power, religion is still considered controversial.

After ignoring religious figures, Hollywood started mocking them. When a priest appears in the 1995 comedy “Jeffrey,” you expect jokes about altar boys and molestation and you don’t have to wait long. Harvey Weinstein and Miramax created a mini-industry of anti-clergy films, including “The Pope Must Die” (1991), “Priest” (1994), “The Magdalene Sisters” (2003) and two multiple Oscar contenders, “Doubt” (2008) and “Philomena” (2013). And of course there’s the all-priests-are-evil best-picture winner, “Spotlight.”

After overly positive depictions of clergy and overly negative ones, Netflix’s “The Two Popes” is an indication that the pendulum may be swinging to the center. You don’t have to like the pope to embrace “Two Popes,” and you don’t have to be Catholic. You just have to be a movie lover.

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