Touchstone Pictures could not have known they had a blockbuster on their hands when they greenlit Sister Act. The film, which was originally a vehicle for Bette Midler, went through multiple script changes before Whoopi Goldberg said her first line of dialogue on screen.

Sister Act was a bonafide box office success grossing over $200 million dollars at the worldwide box office. The success of the film led Disney to patch up any differences they and their star had and quickly greenlit a sequel for the following year. For the next four weeks, “To Touchstone and Beyond” looks at two blockbuster Touchstone films and their sequels.

Our first installment in this miniseries is Sister Act.

The Movie

Deloris Van Cartier, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is a Reno, Nevada lounge singer who runs afoul of her gangster boyfriend Vince, played by Harvey Keitel. Deloris witnesses the murder of one of Vince’s drivers, and runs to the police. According to Detective Eddie Souther, played by Bill Nunn, Vince is a mobster that they have been watching for a long time. Now with Deloris willing to testify, Eddie believes they can finally put Vince in jail.

The problem is they would need to put Deloris in protective custody, far away from the neon lights of Reno, in a convent in San Francisco. Eddie brings Deloris to the convent and meets Mother Superior, played by Maggie Smith. Mother Superior is willing to protect Deloris, if Deloris acts like a visiting nun, named Sister Mary Clarence. Forced to wear a nun’s habit, Deloris must adapt to a whole new world.

Deloris constantly runs afoul of Mother Superior while making friends with her fellow nuns like Sister Mary Patrick and Sister Mary Robert, played by Kathy Nijimy and Wendy Makkena. Mother Superior tries to stifle the unrest that Deloris brings to the convent, isolating her from the other nuns, until finally Deloris is assigned to the choir, in hopes it will keep her busy and perhaps help improve the faltering nun’s choir.

Appointed choir master, Deloris starts to find a home in the convent while reorganizing the choir to bring out their real talent. Under Deloris, the choir starts to show their skill and draw in new people to the church. Under Deloris’ leadership the convent hosts community events, and the nuns finally interact with the people they share the neighborhood with.

Mother Superior who fretted about every possible thing that could go wrong, starts to warm up to Deloris and the effect she has had on the nun’s while posing as Sister Mary Clarence. When Vince finally locates Deloris in San Francisco and kidnaps her, it is the nun’s led by Mother Superior who head to Reno to save Deloris.

With divine intervention by the group of spiritual sisters and Eddie, Deloris is saved, and just in time for the most important performance the choir will ever give. In their church, Pope John Paul II has come to hear the nuns sing.

The Best

Whoopi Goldberg rules the screen from the casino floors of Reno to the choir loft at the convent. Every scene she is in will make the viewers laugh and root for Deloris. Goldberg stated that she was very blessed to work with Marc Shaiman on the music which helped her feel comfortable about performing. Whoopi’s performance captivates the audience helping you get caught up in the joy of the film and never doubting for a moment that she is a talented singer that can inspire a choir.

Maggie Smith, Kathy Nijimy, and Wendy Makkena are the perfect matches for Goldberg at the convent. Smith is the typical Mother Superior who won’t turn anyone away, but at the same time maintains strict control over the actions of her nuns. Kathy Nijimy and Wendy Makkena are excellent as the young devout nuns, who could use someone like Goldberg’s character to shake things up at the convent. Nijimy and Makkena are hilarious at being the naïve sisters, but their talent on the screen in the choir makes you believe they are true musical stars.

Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus is another gem in a film filled with great talent as the hard-nosed sister who use to lead the choir. Sister Mary Lazarus just wants to be part of the group. It takes Deloris taking over the choir before Sister Mary Lazarus realizes that she too needs a change and lightens up. A role like this in a lesser talent would have come off as annoying, but Mary Wickes is a standout amongst the crowd of talent that Sister Act has.

The musical numbers are fantastic to watch and seeing how the nuns adapt “My Girl” to “My God” plus watching the joy on every actor’s face as they perform makes this film well worth the time and price of watching. There is something enduring about Sister Act that will stick with you long after the film is over. It’s fun to watch, and sometimes that’s just the perfect recipe for a great film.

The Worst

Sister Act is the standard fish out of water story. There is nothing new about this film that you haven’t seen a dozen times before. The plot is easily predictable, and anyone can guess what will happen. Sister Act is not a complex movie. It’s straightforward and hits all the usual plot points for this type of film.

Fun Facts

  • Whoopi Goldberg hired Carrie Fisher to re-write a lot of her dialogue. This led to many confrontations with Disney executives.
  • Winona Ryder and Lauren Holly were originally considered for the part of Mary Patrick
  • Anjelica Huston was at one time considered for the role of Mother Superior.
  • When Whoopi Goldberg signed on to the role of Deloris, the location of the film was changed from Chicago to San Francisco.
  • The movie was adapted for London’s West End, where Whoopi appeared in a limited run as Mother Superior.
  • The younger version of Deloris at the start of the film is played by Isis Carmen Jones. Jones would also play a kid version of Whoopi Goldberg’s character Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation in an episode called “Rascals” from season 6.
  • A neighborhood girl played by Desreta Jackson, also played the younger version of Whoopi Goldberg’s character Celie in The Color Purple.
  • Since multiple scenes were filmed in Reno, the cast of nuns would often wear their habits around town playing pranks.
  • Wendy Makkena sounds great as the shy nun with a great voice, but her singing was dubbed by voice actor Andrea Robinson.
  • Disney was sued twice over copyright infringement but won both legal cases.

See It/Skip It?

An enthusiastic See It. This was my first viewing of Sister Act, and I was surprised by the level of warmth that I felt while watching the film. I genuinely liked every character on the screen. This doesn’t happen in all the films I watch and seeing how Deloris brought a new perspective to the convent and brought out the best in the nuns, including Mother Superior, reminded me that you should never be afraid of change.

Whoopi Goldberg was dynamite in this role. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the nun’s habit, including Bette Midler. Goldberg is not a natural singer, but the role is perfect for her, and paired with the rest of the cast, you suspend disbelief and see a brilliant choir of singing nuns. The trademark humor of Goldberg, and a solid supporting cast makes Sister Act a film you want to see. It’s currently available on Disney+.

Next week, I look at Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, and how the smash success of Sister Act brought an instant sequel to the theatres.

Director: Emile Ardolino

Production Company: Touchstone Pictures

Principal Cast:

  • Whoopi Goldberg as Delores
  • Maggie Smith as Mother Superior
  • Kathy Nijimy as Sister Mary Patrick
  • Wendy Makkena as Sister Mary Robert
  • Mary Wickes as Sister Mary Lazarus
  • Harvey Keitel as Vince
  • Bill Nunn as Eddie      

Release Date: May 29, 1992

Budget: $31 million

Box Office Gross Domestic = $139,605,150

                     Worldwide = $231,605,150

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