‘Sister Act’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Sister Act – #2 in the US (May 29-31)

All-Time Domestic $139,605,150 | All-Time International $92,000,000

All-Time Worldwide $231,605,150

Sister Act delivers heaven on Earth with a delightful musical comedy that is worth praise.

In 2013, I attended the Journalism Association of Community Colleges (JACC) conference in Sacramento. A guest speaker talked about the importance of women leading films in cinema during a workshop on women’s roles in journalism. None of the highest-grossing movies of all time had women in the lead role except for Titanic and one other film. That other film is Sister Act. I remember this speech because of an older woman in the audience shouting out loud “That’s because it had the Whoopi!” She made my night with that comment. They’re also not wrong.

Sister Act is the third-highest-grossing movie of 1992. This is behind Lethal Weapon 3 and Batman Returns. Whoopi Goldberg was also a massive star. Her name sans Goldberg is on top of the poster and dwarfs the title itself. Goldberg was still hot off the heels of her Oscar win last year for the fun and brilliant supporting turn in Ghost. Goldberg was unstoppable performing on stage to conquering the big and small screen. Goldberg herself already had two Golden Globes, a BAFTA, and a Grammy by the time this film came out. If she had said no to being the main lead in this film, the other two discussed coming in were Bette Midler and Cher. That in itself is massive praise for how loved Goldberg was during this time. Sister Act put all of her talents on display.

Deloris Van Cartier (Goldberg) is a lounge singer in Reno, Nevada ready to leave her boyfriend Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel). When confronting him, she witnesses him killing a man causing her to run out to the cops. Lt. Souther (Bill Nunn) places Deloris somewhere Vince will never find her: a convent at a San Francisco church. Deloris hides out there to the dismay of Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) as Sister Mary Clarence. She bonds with the nuns by leading a choir that is terrible to bring in new patrons to the church. As Mary Clarence, Deloris plans to lead them to success with clever twists on the 60s…even if it means being put in danger.

Sister Act is still worthy of being a headliner even 30 years later. Maybe it’s the heaviness of the world news currently, but Sister Act brought back some joy while rewatching it. It’s not uproariously funny, but it’s got some great lines. It’s not groundbreaking by any means as far as mid-budget comedies in the 90s go. Yet, there is something so charming about it. This is a movie that in the wrong hands would kind of be thrown away, but it’s elevated by the performances from Goldberg and the supporting cast. It also helps that it is stellar when it comes to the music itself.

Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) leads the choir in “I Will Follow Him.”
Source: Walt Disney Studios

Goldberg is sublime as Deloris and real nails her down. She does want something more than what life has given her. What that is she does it find until she joins the church, but even in the first few scenes, she shows that Deloris has a heart. She’s witty and sarcastic too and plays the “fish out of water” part without ever going overboard. I love how she goes from hating the situation she’s put into to eventually growing into it with such ease. There’s growth and understanding that there is more to the church than just prayer. Even better, everyone around Goldberg knows what movie this is and is playing it straight. 

God bless Maggie Smith and her being an absolute stick in the mud because she gets some killer lines. One of my favorites is when she reminds Deloris why she’s in hiding, “People wish to kill you. Anyone who’s met you I can imagine.” Smith is a natural at subtle digs and sarcastic comments. Kathy Najimy as Mary Lazarus is a delight being so coy and naive. It’s adorable when she and Mary Roberts, played by Wendy McKenna, head to the bar across the way and she dances to “Gravy” as if she’s a kid again. It’s perfection and a total opposite to her turn as Peggy Hill on King of the Hill. Mary Wickes as Mary Lazarus is also an unsung MVP with her unique rasped high tone. She also has a banger of a line when going to find Deloris during a kidnapping insisting the nuns find her by saying ”Well, we can’t leave this up to the Feds!” I do not know if that was an ad-lib or in the script, but damn, if that didn’t get a belly laugh out of me. The bonding with these nuns is made stronger through getting to know each other, but also through the music.

Whoever had the idea to take 60s Motown and apply it to sacred religious music is madder than a hatter. It works wonderfully however because the songs have been in my head for days. Turning Mary Wells’s “My Guy” to “My God” is hilarious, especially the nun who goes for it on the “AND I’M GONNA!” line. The direction on “Hail Holy Queen” is one of the best setpieces in the film by ging in and around the nuns singing, capturing their performance and the joy from Sister Mary Robert taking the lead on the song. The building from the classic version of “I Will Follow Him” to the jazzier version is phenomenal that even the Pope has to snap to it. I cannot imagine a person in 1992 not leaving the theater without a smile on their face after that scene.

What is appreciated is that “My Guy” and “I Will Follow Him” are introduced in the beginning as part of Deloris’ Reno act in a singing take on what overtures in musicals usually do. It’s a great preview going from the boring delivery of the songs into the bombast delight of the versions with the nuns. Goldberg sings all of the songs in this film and she has a pretty darn good voice. Even now, I mostly know her as an actor and comedian, but I always forget that her singing is also quite terrific. The fact that a movie musical (of sorts) that was not animated gained traction in 1992 is remarkable as Newsies weeks prior fizzled out.

The only oddball choice of the movie is Harvey Keitel. His performance is not bad, but it is out of nowhere. This is silly as silly can be, but it is a perfect casting choice. Keitel has a gruff and tough notion about him which plays terrifically well in this film. He doesn’t necessarily get the funniest lines, yet he has a presence in his short time. I do like how when the two humbling goons Willy and Joey hold Deloris hostage, he informs them that he’s seen what she does and she is no nun. These goons, played by Richard Portnow and Robert Miranda respectively, also have morals because they won’t waste a nun, even one who isn’t. I adore bumbling goons in movies. It’s a thankless role for character actors, but mob goons are always fun to see on screen especially hired ones.

Sister Act delivers heaven on Earth with a delightful musical comedy that is worth praise. It’s a charming movie that plays to cheers even now. Goldberg gets to be a triple threat with her acting, comedy, and singing on full display. I was not even born yet, but even I’m waxing nostalgic about mid-budget comedies ruling the box office. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen anymore.

Revue Rating: 4 out of 5

Next week, get out your white New Balance shoes, tuck in your T-shirt into some shorts and set the thermostat to a cool 67℉. Your dad’s favorite author Tom Clancy and his favorite actor Harrison Ford are in town with Patriot Games.

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