Thinking back on the movie Sister Act — which first hit theaters 25 years ago, on May 29, 1992 — you might think the gayest thing about it was the fact that Whoopi Goldberg plays a character with the dragtastic name of Deloris Van Cartier. You wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, nor would you be incorrect to point out that the film’s eventual translation into a Broadway musical also makes it a little bit gayer. It does.
However, there’s a little more there, deep down, hidden beneath all the habits and Motown hits. Sister Act has a narrative with which a lot of queer viewers identify, even if they never noticed it. And today we’re celebrating the film’s quarter-century birthday by reminding you it’s there.
I have to admit: I didn’t actually see Sister Act in the theater; I was more of a Batman Returns or FernGully type of kid. No, solely by virtue of the fact that it features nuns as its main characters, Sister Act became a movie we were allowed to watch at my Catholic elementary school. In retrospect, this seems strange, because at one point Whoopi Goldberg’s character, before she dons the habit, says “You don’t give a shit!” as part of her rendition of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave.” But we were OKed to watch it, and I’ve heard from other Catholic school survivors that we were not alone in this respect.
And, you know, the plot revolves around Deloris’ mobster boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) wanting to put a bullet in her, hence her needing to hide out at a convent. In retrospect, my class should have just been forced to watch The Song of Bernadette again, but instead we got to see Sister Act, moderate swears and implied violence and all. I’m glad we did. Thinking back on the movie, I realize there’s a special message in it that I can appreciate today. I don’t know if anyone else thought about it as much. I should ask the two other guys from my fifth-grade class who ended up being gay, too.
The movie begins with an elementary school-aged Deloris clashing with her teacher, a nun. Deloris has personality, but the nun would rather she not express it. When the nun asks her, “Have you any idea what girls like you become?” Deloris merely smiles. Flash-forward to the present day — or the present day of 1992, at least — and Deloris is sporting an amazing wig onstage in Reno. She’s flanked by two back-up singers (one of whom is Blackish star Jenifer Lewis, BTW).
And sure, more than a few gay men have had fleeting fantasies about having their own back-up singers, but that’s not where I’m going with this.
Once Deloris enters protective custody and becomes Sister Mary Clarence, she’s forced to shed her identity — the person she always knew she wanted to be but had to wait until adulthood to actually become. She’s expected to act the part of a nun, and she does this initially. But when the Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) allows her to participate in the convent’s choir, Deloris’ true self comes out again. She goes big. She goes showy. She goes Motown, and the choir’s subsequent performance becomes a spectacle.
Deloris sees her update of “Hail, Holy Queen” as a success, but the Reverend Mother doesn’t like it. She doesn’t care that the performance actually drew curious people into the church; she’s concerned with the nuns appearing conservative and traditional. And over the rest of the movie, Goldberg’s character has to work to prove to this authority figure that flouting convention doesn’t necessarily mean doing wrong.
Her showy sensibility gets to continue, and we get musical numbers like “My God.”
In the end, Keitel’s character is arrested, Goldberg avoids getting bumped off and Smith’s Reverend Mother permits the new musical director to stay — sans habit. That last part is the biggest victory, at least for little proto-gay kids who were watching Sister Act in a Catholic school classroom and feeling more like young Deloris at the beginning of the movie. Deloris probably could have followed the rules and gotten by without attracting excessive attention, but she wouldn’t have been happy because she wasn’t being true to herself. By following her own inclinations, she was able to become successful and happy, and she managed to prove to the objectors around her that it’s not necessarily bad to be different — or ostentatious or campy or glitzy or enamored of popular culture or anything else.
This should all sound familiar. It’s a point I eventually got to on my own, once I’d figured things out a little, and I may have gotten there ever so sightly sooner because Sister Act planted that seed in my 10-year-old brain. So I guess my teacher’s decision to make the class watch Sister Act was for the best, after all?
I will conclude with one more musical number. I think that’s how Deloris would do it, anyway.