Thursday, January 20, 2022

Habits of Men in Drag

Nuns on the Run

I can’t imagine this film being made today. Nuns on the Run is a drag comedy of the kind that is uncomfortable at this moment in history.

It’s strange to think back to the days of Shakespeare when women were forbidden from performing on the stage, so all the women’s roles were played by men. Even so, the Bard still played with drag concepts in comedies such as Twelfth Night. When actresses eventually took their place on the stage, men dressing as women became an even greater source of comedy. In 1893, Charley’s Aunt -- with the central premise of a man pretending to be a woman -- has as its primary source of comedy how funny-looking Lord Fancourt Babberley is as Aunt Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez. Audiences laughed at a man with a deep voice and five o’clock shadow in a dress.

Since that time, many movies expected audiences to laugh at the same joke. They laughed at Milton Berle for years whenever he put on a dress on television. They laughed at Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon in dresses in Some Like It Hot. I’m not sure that many audiences laughed at Marlon and Shawn Wayans dressed as sorority girls in White Chicks, but that was the goal.

But these days drag has become more mainstream. And we have trans women in a variety of roles in sports, politics, show business, etc. So are we supposed to laugh when we see a man in a dress anymore?

The comedy in Nuns on the Run is supposed to come from men dressed as nuns, so the comedy doesn’t just come from men dressing as women, but crooks dressed as clergy. Similarly, Sister Act found comedy in a lounge singer dressed as a nun.

Jonathan Lynn, the director of My Cousin Vinny, wrote and directed this story of Brian (Eric Idle) and Charlie (Robbie Coltrane) as two small-time crooks who double-cross some big-time drug dealers. They steal a great deal of money from them and, as the drug dealers chase them, they head through an open door into what turns out to be a nunnery. They find some nuns' habits in the laundry room, pull them on, and introduce themselves to the Sister Superior (Janet Suzman) as “transfer nuns.” Though Sister Superior has heard nothing from the convent they are supposed to be transferring from (and makes no effort to contact that other nunnery), she gives them rooms and gives them work to do at the women’s college attached to the convent. Sister Superior is not the best at administration.

In fact, Sister Superior’s lack of due diligence puts the other nuns in the convent and especially the young women in the college in danger in a number of ways.

Primarily, she has invited two criminals to live in the convent. Those two criminals have brought with them two suitcases filled with large amounts of cash. Even more criminals may come to the convent searching for Brian and Charlie -- and the cash. This is not safe, and safety should be a primary concern of anyone responsible for the lives (and homes) of others.

Also, Brian and Charlie are assigned to teach classes in the college without any research into their qualifications. Charlie is assigned to teach physical education. Fortunately, Charlie is a very competent basketball player and is able to impress the women with his/her/their skill. Unfortunately, Charlie monitors the women showering after class (soon joined by Brian), and the “Male Gaze” is much in evidence.

Brian is assigned to teach theology. The topic of the day is the Trinity. The young women ask such questions as, “How could God be in a physical body if God is spirit?” Though Brian, who has absolutely no religious background, tries to counter such questions with the example of the shamrock (suggested by Charlie), saying, “Though there are three leaves, it is one plant,” he is clearly flummoxed. Brian says of the doctrine to Charlie, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Charlie responds, “If it made sense we wouldn’t need religion.”

The filmmakers seem to imply that since two poorly educated criminals and young college students think the Trinity is nonsense, it’s nonsense -- Charlie and Brian obviously know more than Justin Martyr or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. (It's rather like if Brian had been sent to teach physics, and he found the concept of light being both a wave and a particle incomprehensible, so we let's throw out the work of Max Planck.)

Then we learn that this isn’t the first time Sister Superior has made poor judgment calls.

For instance, she put Sister Mary (Doris Hare) in charge of the funds for their Drug Rehabilitation Center. Sister Mary quite obviously has a problem with alcohol abuse (we often see her sneaking gulps from a whiskey bottle). Sister Mary also has a weakness for playing the horses. Sister Mary loses $50,000 (or was it pounds?) betting on the races. Though she's aware of it, Sister Superior does nothing about this, doesn’t report the embezzlement to ecclesiastic or legal authorities, and waits for the accountants to discover the loss. She tells Sister Mary, “Mary, you have to get this under control,” rather than, I don’t know, sending her to an alcohol rehabilitation center.

There also seems to be an ongoing problem of sexual impropriety. Father Seamus (Tom Hickey) hits on the new “nuns” as soon as he meets them, and we learn that this has been an ongoing problem (it is said he “can’t keep his hands to himself”). But the Sister Superior has done nothing about it.

Eventually, after much plot takes place, Charlie and Brian leave the convent, leaving behind one of the two suitcases full of cash. Instead of reporting this to the legal authorities, Sister Superior decides to use the money to replace the drug rehab center money embezzled by Sister Mary. (“We’ll use the money gained by hooking kids on drugs and use it to get kids off drugs,” she says.) Situational ethics rather than Biblical ethics seems to be her stock in trade.

She earns herself and her convent a lowly Two Steeple Rating.

If Nuns on the Run seems like a film of its time, this is even more true of 1977’s Nasty Habits. Based on a novel (The Abbess of Crewe by one of my favorites, Muriel Spark), this story of an election in an abbey is a prolonged allegory for the Watergate scandal during the Presidency of Richard Nixon. There aren’t many people left these days that will find the story relevant or interesting, but if Glenda Jackson as a Mother Superior saying, “You won’t have Alexandra to kick around anymore” sounds like your cup of tea, you can find the film for free on Youtube. But Alexandra and her whole convent earn a lowly Two Steeple Rating as well.

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