Watching “Doubt” is quite a different experience today than when the movie first came out in 2008. Also different for those who remember the years of the Kennedy Assasination -- which was not the only assassination -- and the huge revulsion against such a world. One of the major stories in the GF Tribune today is about “make-up” commencements for those whose graduations were foreclosed by the Kent State murders of students by the National Guard. (1970) This strikes me as a covert reminder of the consequences of disorder and a warning to those wanting to return to those years of rethinking the world.
“Doubt” is about a deeper doubt than whether or not a specific priest has been molesting the boys of a Catholic school and whether the principal nun should take action, whether or not he is guilty. Most reviewers missed many small nuances. For instance, one boy, rebellious to all authority figures, defies the priest’s advances and smiles when the man leaves. He is on the side of the nun in this opinion, though he has no use for her authority or conventional “niceness” -- taking devious ways of escaping authority. The other boy, made obviously vulnerable because he is Black, turns out to be also gay for which his father beat him badly. He is at the Catholic school because it can protect him from other students who see gays as natural prey. The priest’s advances are welcome to him, possibly, though his confused reaction is hidden: when he returns from the rectory with wine on his breath, we don’t see him. He is shot masked by Sister James -- we can barely tell she is talking to him.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep make this movie possible with their ability to pull us in even when we object to what the characters are doing, and also with the sharp quickness of the rapier exchanges between them -- one can only admire -- but then later admit the empathy that somehow snuck in. It is the Black mother in her Jackie Kennedy coat and hat who sees the complexity of the world and the necessity of clinging to the larger goal -- like keeping her boy alive when his own father is capable of beating him to death.
As is my method, I went looking for information about this playwright, who used an incident in his own family as the kernel for this movie, previously a play. I found a great article about him by Alex Witchel in the NY Times in 2004 just before the play opened. Witchel attended a family reunion picnic and noted that the family strategically kept away from Shanley, evidently for fear he might steal more stories from their lives.
Shanley did indeed attend Catholic schools of a range of brutality. "It was homosexual teachers for the most part who saved me,'' Shanley said. ''The head of discipline at Thomas Moore was gay, and he was my friend and protector. Did he have his reasons for being interested in me? Everybody has their reasons. Passion fuels many things, and it's used in many ways. Many of these people never cross the line.''
So what do we DO with that information? Would it be heresy to suggest that priests not only be allowed to marry but also to marry other adult males? Is the problem celibacy or homosexuality or sexuality that leaks into relationships with children?
Shanley said, “And still another reason I wrote this play is that I'm very aware that debate has become the form of communication, like on 'Crossfire.' There is no room or value placed on doubt, which is one of the hallmarks of the wise man. It's getting harder and harder in this society to find a place for spacious, true intellectual exchange. It's all becoming about who won the argument, which is just moronic.''
Many ideas are quietly presented without comment. The priests whoop it up with wine, music and cushioned surroundings while the nuns move through a near Shaker existence. The essence of the Fifties is found in the cinematography which sees a symmetrical orderly beauty everywhere, maybe even in the narrow back alley with its geometric fire escapes. All is control except in little bubbles of privilege. Anything else is just too terrifying, too demanding.
Sister is right to carry her defense of the boundaries to the children, though she doesn’t notice that her own asceticism is eroded by the transistor radio she impounds, not for the music but for the news. The wind blows hard, the lights go out. But the irrepressible boy goes on talking in class, the irresistible girl continues to fall in love. The subtle and convincing portraits of these children are a powerful force in the argument. Even shooting them with guns on campuses is not enough to extinguish them.
Shanley and his second wife, now divorced, adopted two boys at birth, one Mexican and one “Celtic” from Texas, about the same age. Witchel ends his article with this vignette:
“Both boys are protective of Shanley, almost tender in their vigilance of him. They continually surround him, seeming to stand sentry. Maybe it's the glaucoma. Maybe it's because he's just not like other dads. When Frank came off the makeshift court -- a patch of grass dotted with rocks -- and Shanley saw his skinned knee, he said, ''You know, in Ireland, kings were kings until they had a physical imperfection, and then they were put to death.''
“His [Shanley’s] brother Tom quickly interjected, ''Well, Frank, it's a good thing you're not a king.'' But Frank didn't need reassurance. He seems to hear stuff like that all the time. He sat near his father a while longer, then returned to the game.
“Shanley watched his sons. 'They're going to fall in love and have their hearts broken,'' he said quietly. ''I don't think I can take it.' ”
But he will. What choice is there? In spite of all doubts we cannot help loving. In this, Sister James is our guide with her open earnestness, her quick wish for the best, and her bad dreams. She is what the Pope pretends to be.