As we gear up for the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26, one thing many may not realize is that there’s spiritual gold underlying all that Hollywood glitter, especially when it comes to “Golden Age” stars.
Two stars I write about in “Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends,” Gary Cooper and Mary Astor, won Oscars 75 years ago at the 14th annual Academy Awards, hosted by Bob Hope.
A third star, New York native James Cagney, was just finishing work on his Oscar-winning film. Their underlying stories of faith, on the way to winning Oscar gold, are every bit as poignant and inspiring as the lives, real or fictional, they portray on the silver screen.
Cooper, who won the Best Actor Oscar for the title role in “Sergeant York” (1941), began to feel the pull of faith during filming—building on his innate spiritual sense. This cinematic classic about Alvin York, a World War I hero from the backwoods of Tennessee, is also a story of faith, which touched Cooper’s soul. “Coop,” like York, came to realize “a little religion wouldn’t do no hurt,” as Ma York said. The film—famously depicting the ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue after York captured 132 Germans near Argonne Forest, armed only with his 1917 Enfield rifle, M1911 pistol and rock-solid faith in God’s providence—was Cooper’s favorite, said his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis.
York was also lavished with a suite of rooms at the Waldorf Astoria and lucrative deals, but refused to profit from the death of others. Later in life, as Cooper reflected on all his good fortune, and realizing, in his own words, he didn’t want to be such a “bum” and to give back, he turned to Catholicism, the faith of his wife, Veronica, a Manhattan native, and daughter. Shortly before Cooper died, he made sure Ernest Hemingway’s friend, A.E. Hotchner, gave the ailing writer this message: Becoming a Catholic, Cooper said, was “the best thing I ever did.”
Mary Astor, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in “The Great Lie” (1941), the same year as Coop, pondered becoming a Catholic during filming. When her friend Bette Davis asked her to co-star, it postponed an essential step in healing from the intense personal pain and suffering she endured as her private diary was splashed across the front pages of national newspapers during the summer of 1936. The diary became public in a child custody case. Her estranged husband hoped to use it to prove she was an unfit parent. Problem was, the most salacious parts were fabricated. At the end, she was granted custody and the judge ordered the diary incinerated.
The story of her diary is incomplete without the story of her conversion. For Mary, one big stumbling block was the unworthiness she felt because her sins had been so publicly aired. When she realized God was a loving Father and that He would forgive her, she found great peace and, through relentless prayer, the gift of faith.
Cagney, who won an Oscar for “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), had a rich spirituality that defies Hollywood convention. While filming this hit musical about the life of the legendary showman and Broadway producer, George M. Cohan, he would often lead the film’s cast in prayer.
There was a lot to pray for. In early 1942, our nation had just gone to war against Hitler. In fact, on Feb. 26, 1942, Second Lieutenant Jimmy Stewart presented the Oscar to Cooper dressed in his Army Air Corps blues. Nineteen years later, as Cooper neared death, a visibly moved Stewart accepted the honorary Oscar for his best friend’s entire body of work.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” was just the patriotic elixir America needed, and as Cagney danced and sang his way through it, he also prayed quietly to himself. He had gotten his spiritual grounding at St. Francis De Sales, at East 96th Street and Lexington Avenue, and had a special place in his heart for the church. While he was an altar boy and was confirmed there, he also ran with the Yorkville hoodlums from the then-working-class German, Irish, Italian and Jewish neighborhood. But the church helped set him on the straight and narrow. He was buried from his beloved church in April 1986.
As for today’s stars, when all is said and done, many of them may have similar stories of faith. Hollywood, after all, creates crises like no place else that often find resolution through faith.
Mary Claire Kendall is the author of “Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends.” She will be doing a reading and signing at Logos Book Store, 1575 York Ave., Manhattan, on Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m.