The Nun's Story, a magnificent drama about the struggle between a woman’s conscience and her faith, went into wide release 60 years ago this month. Meticulously directed by Fred Zinnemann, and anchored by a truly extraordinary performance by Audrey Hepburn, the movie proved to be a surprise hit in 1959, becoming one of the ten biggest releases of the year. Additionally, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Picture. Filmed entirely on location in Belgium and The Belgian Congo (with interiors shot at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios), it featured a stellar cast that included five past and future Oscar winners. Here is a look back at this classic, with several rare images from the Warner Bros. archives.
The cast underwent months of extensive research to prepare for their roles, with many of the actresses spending time with actual nuns in convents.
Dean Jagger (an Oscar winner for 1949's Twelve O’Clock High) plays the distinguished Dr. Van Der Mal, who respects but doesn't fully understand his daughter Gabrielle’s desire to become a nun.
Hepburn's subtle yet powerful performance in The Nun's Story is quite possibly the finest of her entire career. The constant battle between her strong will and the strict demands of a religious life are etched on her face in nearly every scene.
Director Zinnemann made sure that the rituals depicted in the movie were as true-to-life as possible. Since the production could not hire actual nuns to act in the film, dancers from the Rome Opera were recruited as extras.
Ben-Hur was filming at Cinecittà Studios at the same time as The Nun’s Story. In 1960, the movies would be competing against each other for the Best Picture Academy Award, with Ben-Hur ultimately taking the prize.
Beatrice Straight plays the nun who oversees the mental hospital where Sister Luke, as Gabrielle has been renamed, is assigned to work. She would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 1976’s Network, and is equally well-known for playing a parapsychologist in Poltergeist.
Sister Luke is attacked by a patient after ignoring warning from her superiors, another example of her inability to contain her pride. Surprisingly violent for a 1950s film, Audrey Hepburn performed this sequence herself despite offers of a stunt double.
Zinnemann had originally wanted to only shoot the Congo scenes in color to heavily contrast them with the European scenes, which would be filmed in black & white. However, studio head Jack L. Warner rejected this idea, and the entire film was shot in Technicolor. One year after the release of The Nun's Story, Zinnemann would release another classic (and his second consecutive Best Picture nominee) for Warner Bros., The Sundowners.
After arriving in Africa, Sister Luke is assigned to work with an esteemed surgeon (Peter Finch), who questions some of the harsh conditions she chooses to live by.
Dame Peggy Ashcroft plays Sister Luke’s superior in Africa. In 1985, she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her wonderful work in David Lean's A Passage to India.
Like Beatrice Straight, Peter Finch also won an Oscar for Network. His Academy Award for Best Actor was the first such acting award to be awarded posthumously.