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Sister White and Uncle Oscar: The Curious Adventist/Academy Awards Connection


Are you an actor hoping for the ultimate in Hollywood cred: an Academy Award? Perhaps you’ve been looking for a role as a historical figure, ideally a member of the British royal family. Or maybe you think, “If Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix can both win Oscars for playing Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, maybe I can too?” Well, may I suggest a kind of role you perhaps haven’t yet considered: an Adventist.

Adventists have always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with the movies. Adventist folklore has even suggested that guardian angels wait outside theaters when their humans wander inside. Yet over the past few decades, a curious phenomenon has occurred. In the rare instance in which a film character is Adventist, chances are, the role goes to an Oscar winner.

Consider the better-known examples. Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark?[1] Played by the most-nominated actress ever, Meryl Streep. Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge? Andrew Garfield hasn’t won yet, but he was nominated for Best Actor for playing the World War II medic in 2016, and again for Tick, Tick . . . Boom! In 2021.

In 1976, Sally Field, who would go on to win Best Actress for Norma Rae (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984), portrayed a dissociative identity disorder patient—and lifelong Adventist—Shirley Mason, fictionalized as the eponymous Sybil.[2] Don Cheadle won Best Actor for his role as self-described “lapsed Seventh-day Adventist”[3] (and former pastor) Paul Rusesabagina in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda.

In the R-rated 1994 satire The Road to Wellville, two-time Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins yucked it up as a heavily fictionalized John Harvey Kellogg. When Ben Carson’s memoir Gifted Hands became a 2009 TV movie, Best Supporting Actor winner (for 1996’s Jerry Maguire) Cuba Gooding Jr. played the neurosurgeon and future politician. And while Hugo Weaving still awaits his Oscar, he’s a six-time Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award winner and was AACTA-nominated for his role as Tom Doss in Hacksaw Ridge.

The TV show Drunk History featured actor brothers Luke and Owen Wilson as famous Michiganders Will and John Harvey Kellogg. I thought, Oh, Luke Wilson’s never been nominated, but hey, J. H. K. was already portrayed, however inaccurately, by Anthony Hopkins. Joke’s on me: Owen Wilson was Oscar-nominated for his screenwriting on Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Kellogg is not the only Adventist to have been fictionalized in both film and television. In addition to being portrayed by Meryl Streep, Lindy Chamberlain was also portrayed by Australian actress Miranda Otto in the Australian miniseries Through My Eyes: The Lindy Chamberlain Story (for which Otto won Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series at the 2005 Logie Awards); Gold Logie-award-winning Craig McLachlan played Michael Chamberlain in the Seven Network drama. Through My Eyes was Otto’s second time playing an Adventist, having played a rebellious pastor’s daughter in 1992’s The Nostradamus Kid, Australian writer/director Bob Ellis’s semi-autobiographical tale of his Adventist upbringing. (Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson has parodied two Adventists onscreen, Ben Carson and Barry Black, but his TV-centric career has only nabbed him an Emmy.)

The Adventist Oscar bump extends to at least one fictional Adventist, as Best Actor winner (for 2000’s Gladiator, out of three acting nominations) Russell Crowe once portrayed a prospective theology student in a recruitment video for Avondale College.

The Adventist-Oscars connection extends even to characters who are Adventist-adjacent. Seventh-day Adventist Louise Little’s son Malcolm was portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (Tony award nominee Lonette McKee portrayed Louise; two-time Oscar nominee Angela Bassett starred as the activist’s wife, Betty Shabazz). When Free State of Jones cast an actor to play Newton Knight, whose real-life daughter was the legendary Adventist missionary and educator Anna Knight, Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey took the part. It gets weirder: The 1948 film Tap Roots was loosely based on Newton Knight’s story, and the actor who played the lead, Van Heflin, had won Best Supporting Actor for 1941’s Johnny Eager. And in the story of Hotel Rwanda, though Paul Rusesabagina’s second wife is not Adventist, Sophie Okenodo nonetheless received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for portraying Tatiana Rusesabagina.

Then there’s musician June Carter Cash. In her memoir Among My Klediments, she reflected on the diversity of religious influences in her life, describing herself as a “Seventh Day Adventist Baptist Methodist Pentecostal Jew.” Naturally, Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for her portrayal of June in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (co-star Joaquin Phoenix, who played the lead, was also nominated for that film, and would later win for the title role in Joker, his fourth nomination).

And while the 2009 satire Jesus People keeps things nondenominational, broadly spoofing evangelical culture, it was cowritten by Pacific Union College professor Rajeev Sigamoney, includes multiple Adventists as extras, and features an end-credits shout-out to the Hollywood Adventist Church.[4] That’s why I’ve got to give at least an honorable mention to Octavia Spencer, who played Angel Angelique two years before she won Best Supporting Actress for The Help.

This knowledge can make for some interesting viewing. Consider the actors who’ve played Adventists and who also inhabit the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Sally Field, Sam Neill, Andrew Garfield, Anthony Hopkins, Don Cheadle, Owen Wilson, Russell Crowe, and Hugo Weaving (plus another honorable mention of Octavia Spencer, in a too-brief role in 2002’s Spiderman). And while Sam Neill (who played Pastor Michael Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark) has had to settle for nominations for Emmys and Golden Globes, his Marvel role is particularly meta: he plays an actor portraying Anthony Hopkins’s character in a play.

If there’s any limit to these curious connections, it may be to Adventists portraying themselves. Kirsten Johnson’s critically acclaimed 2020 film Dick Johnson is Dead, about her Adventist fathers journey with dementia, garnered considerable Oscar buzz but ultimately wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary.

So, what can we make of all this? That Adventists make for rich, complex characters? That portraying an Adventist stretches an actor, leading to dramatic recognition?

Or maybe, despite Adventism’s historic antipathy to cinema,[5] and despite the denomination’s general cultural imposter syndrome, when they get to know us, to paraphrase (a slightly misquoted) Sally Field, “They like us—they really like us!”


Notes & References:

[1] The movie, based on the book Evil Angels: The Case of Lindy Chamberlain, was released with the title Evil Angels in Australia and New Zealand.

[2] In the 2007 remake, two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange played Sybils psychiatrist (as Oscar winner Joanne Woodward had in the original), but Tammy Blanchard, in the title role, has so far had to settle for a Golden Globe win and Emmy and Tony nods.

[3] Paul Rusesabagina, An Ordinary Man, pp. 183-184. Rusesabagina described the incredible dismay he felt when “so many priests and pastors” stayed silent during, and were even complicit in, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the disconnection he felt from God in that time. He wrote, “It used to be that God and I shared many drinks together as friends. We don’t talk much anymore, but I would like to think that we can one day reconcile over an urwagwa and he will explain everything to me. But that time is not yet here.” In 2021, the Rwandan government sentenced Rusesabagina to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges, a move that has been denounced as politically motivated.

[4] His character driving past the Hollywood Adventist Church probably isn’t why Brad Pitt won Best Supporting Actor in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), his first win out of three acting nominations, but it clearly didn’t hurt.

[5] The Sound of Music and Follow Me, Boys! excepted.


Tompaul Wheeler, MDiv, MFA, lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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