Forget the bunnies, maids, witches, nurses, etc, when it comes to fetishized female role modes,
nuns beat them all (and given their knack for corporal punishment, beating
might be one explanation for their appeal). Lady Gaga was no fool when she
donned nasty habits for her new music video for "Alejandro;" good Catholic
school girl that she is, she knows a well-turned black hem and a pair of
sensible shoes is the key to every bad Catholic school boy's libido.
Troy Patterson in "Slate" recognizes this and takes a tour of some of the most
provocative nuns in cultural history, and it includes Ken Russell's zesty, zany
"The Devils" (1971). I had included Russell's
blasphemous epic in my own list of sexy screen sisters in an essay titled "Habit-forming"
that I wrote for the National Society of Film Critics' anthology "The X-List." Though the film was indeed X-rated, I compared
it unfavorably to seemingly tamer personal favorites, Leo McCarey's "The Bells of Saint Mary's" (1945) and John Huston's "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957).
As I note in the essay, in "Bells" Ingrid Bergman might be
the hottest thing in a wimple as Sister Mary Bridget, and the film's studio RKO
seemed aware of this when they distributed it with the tagline "Ingrid Bergman
has never been lovelier, hubbahubbahubba," the latter being Latin for "say
three Hail Marys for penance." Even uptight McCarey has a winking appreciation
of his erotic commodity, and smooth crooner Bing Crosby as Fr. O'Malley seems
to have met his celibate match. As a housekeeper wonders aloud when O'Malley
and Sister Mary are about to first make their acquaintance, how will the good
father react "when he's up to his neck in nuns?" (an image evocative of "The Devils"). Answer: he promptly sits on a
kitten. Then the pussy crawls into O'Malley's hat. Freud might have some
insight into what's really happening here.
Less symbolic is "Mr. Allison" with Robert Mitchum's beefy
Marine trapped on a Japanese-held island with Sister Angela, played by Deborah
Kerr, who was already in the habit going back to Michael Powell's "Black Narcissus" (1947). I
won't go into detail about the frustrations and delights of this overlooked
gem, but let's just say that the censors of the time must have been thankful to
the Imperial Navy, and "I had to get you out of them wet clothes, ma'am"
remains one of the sexiest lines Mitchum ever said.