The infamous Oscar-worthy scene with Viola Davis and Meryl Streep
After all the buzz, I had been really excited to see Doubt. I’m a huge fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it’s just easy to be awed by Meryl Streep’s nuanced performances. Besides, having seen some of the ladies on the daytime circuit, I had given into the hype, eventually dishing about it later with my grandmother. Moreover, all of the film’s major actors had been nominated for Academy Awards. Even Viola Davis, whose one major scene consumes all of seven and a half minutes, had captured the critics’ and the Academy’s attention. None of them actually ended up going home with the coveted bald little man of gold, but they certainly garnered an A for effort.
Eventually, I made my way to the theatre to gain my own perspective. All I knew is that Doubt dealt with the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church and that the storyline purposefully evoked ambiguity so as to make the audience—well—doubt the protagonist. Above all, I was hoping for a sensitive approach to the issue of child sexual abuse. But if all else failed, I was ready to be blown away by stunning performances. I was richly rewarded with the latter, but this was no surprise. The plot twist came when not only was the film insensitive to child sexual abuse, but it was also sexist and homophobic. Ouch.
In essence, Meryl Streep plays the strong-willed nun who feels strongly in her convictions of an illicit relationship between Hoffman’s character, a pastor by the name of Father Flynn at the parochial school where the story unfolds, and the school’s only African American male student, Donald Miller. Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius, is the strict counterpart to Sister James’s innocent sweetness, who is played by Amy Adams. Sister Aloysius embodies every negative stereotype of a classic feminist—celibate, plain, nagging, resistant to pleasure, and, in turn, someone who oversteps her boundaries by standing up for what she believes to be an injustice.
I found myself empathizing with the accused abuser, doubting as to whether such a nice, sweet, well-intentioned male figure within the church could be accused of such a horrific crime by a nit-picky woman. What’s worse, Viola Davis’s seven and a half minute Oscar worthy scene troubles the accusation by introducing yet another set of contentious points. First of all, she does not wish Sister Aloysius to pursue the sexual abuse allegation, so that Donald’s academic future will be secure. We then learn that at the mere age of twelve, Donald can’t help the homosexual “nature” that “god intended” for him. Not only has Sister Aloysius become a threat to Father Flynn, but she has now endangered the comfort and security of the boy by claiming sexual abuse. As a side note, how does a prepubescent boy know enough about his sexuality for his mother to site his homosexual “nature?” Moreover, incorporating the theme of homosexuality within the context of accused sexual abuse between a man and a young boy invokes the classic negative stereotype of gay men as pedophiles.
Nevertheless, the film trivializes a very valid and real issue that has plagued the Catholic Church by encouraging doubt of the pastor’s guilt. And yet, it is not until the last few moments of the film that we finally start to doubt his innocence. The sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests first came to the national forefront in 1985, with the trial of Gilbert Gauthe, who plead guilty to eleven counts of the molestation of boys. In the 1990s, several books on the issue were published. The coverage finally gained momentum, exploding into a full media circus in 2002, when the Boston Globe vigorously exposed the full scandal.
The film itself is adapted from a play of the same name, which premiered in 2004, two years after the official break of the scandal. Is this a coincidence? Was it meant as commentary? Should we really be doubting whether a fictional character did, in fact, molest a boy when, clearly, too many young boys have suffered from the same unnecessary and horrific fate? It’s not that I don’t appreciate viewing the same issue from several perspectives. I think the film The Woodsmen, directed by Nicole Kasell and also released in 2004, does a good job of humanizing the accused. Nevertheless, neither film is truly realistic in their approach to the subject. In different ways, both films fail to do the topic justice.
Yet again, I went to the theatre hopeful and left wondering how such a significant concern could have been missed. Again, it is unfortunate how such sensitive, important topics can become trivialized for the sake of mere drama. Yet, I am still left appreciating the acting, though questioning their choice of role.