Diminishing Dorothy Day: 'Entertaining Angels'

Article excerpt

Whether she was in jail, simply walking in the street, buying groceries, asking directions, browsing in a bookstore, or waiting in line to enter a theater or a museum, Dorothy Day was constantly noticing people, constantly ready to engage with them and let them become, even for a few moments, part of her life.

How I wish that sentence, from Robert Coles's Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Addison-Wesley), had been recorded, then transmitted on headphones, as subliminal brainwashing during slumber, into the ears of writer John Wells and director Michael Rhodes before they made Entertaining Angels, the new motion picture about the woman who co-founded the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Worker Movement. For, thanks to the performance of Moira Kelly, Dorothy exists on screen but nobody in her life does. A woman who drove herself to live for others ends up as a magnetic movie heroine surrounded by posturing stereotypes. And, of course, when you diminish Dorothy Day's world, you diminish Dorothy Day.

Let our heroine, during her Greenwich Village Bohemian days, enter a smoky tavern and there they all are, the legendary radicals of the twenties and thirties. The camera seems to crash around just behind these young actors wearing period clothes, and they themselves crash around, banging tables, chairs, and beer mugs and announcing one another's names at full volume Mike Gold! Floyd Dell! Are these stentorian introductions meant to penetrate the ignorance of the uninitiated, who won't know or care that these are two of the editors of the Socialist paper, The Masses? Surely most literate people will recognize the name Eugene O'Neill, but he gets an introduction anyway when the camera swings over to a dark Irishman glowering Byronically behind a black moustache, and an off-screen voice (Dell's? Gold's?) announces, "Eugene O'Neill! America's most infamous playwright!" It's a bit like the "Ed Sullivan Show" whenever the host introduced celebrities sitting in the audience. Let's really hear it, folks, for America's Most Infamous Playwright!

We also get to meet Day's lovers: Lionel Moise, who's supposed to be a hard guy but here comes across as just another Hollywood pretty boy; and Forster Batterham as depicted by Lenny Von Dohlen, who has a monotonous voice and a spacey gaze but not a scintilla of the smouldering rage shading into nihilism that probably both attracted and repelled Day.

And then there are the spiritual influences on Day's life: Peter Maurin, a French peasant and autodidact of Whitmanesque proportions but here played by Martin Sheen with such cutsey owlishness (and an accent straight from the land of Maurice Chevalier impersonators) that I couldn't decide if a Stalinist ice pick or a fascist firing squad should be the proper reward for such a performance; and the usually engaging Melinda Dillon makes a spunky nun who ignites Day's interest in the homeless just as obnoxious as show-biz spunky nuns usually are. Only the superb veteran actor Brian Keith, in the stooge role of a recalcitrant bishop ("What do you say we remove the Catholic from Catholic Worker, Dorothy?"), endows his character with a sense of reality, with the texture of a life lived.

Worst of all, the poor are stereotyped. Dorothy Day had no use for "the faceless masses"; she tried to help one individual after another and delighted in idiosyncrasy. But all this movie can do with the needy is to put actors in dirty clothes and have them gesticulate pathetically, wag their heads humbly, and stop just short of pulling their forelocks. In fact, all the supporting parts in this movie are cardboard figures, mere feeders of cues to the lead actress, Moira Kelly.

To be sure, Ms. Kelly delivers. Her characterization is a blend of Celtic charm, transfixing gravity, justified rage, pathetic neediness, and inexhaustible compassion. …