Being Heard: What’s with the fingernails?

04 Feb 2009

By The Record

It came back to me while watching the slightly inferior film.
What does such a detail, a priest’s longer-than-average fingernails, mean to us?


Tense: Amy Adams and Meryl Streep talk with writer-director John Patrick Shanley on the set of the movie Doubt. Shanley says the values he learned in Catholic school still inform him in his work and life. Photo: CNS/Miramax


By John Heard

There is a moment in John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt when the fixated nun (Sister Aloysius) rounds on her quarry (Father Flynn) and admonishes him: “And cut your fingernails”.
It is a climactic moment, coming at the close of an intense sequence. The audience has witnessed the headmistress and the priest wrangling – him obliquely, she always crisp and direct – about the possibility of child sex abuse in their school.
Father Flynn’s fingernails, suddenly so prominent in the sequence, serve as a hook. On that exquisite detail, Shanley hangs all the contradictory, ambiguous, disquieting attributes that coalesce around his highly complex characters.
When I saw the play on Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Brian F O’Byrne’s Father Flynn was a working class hero in a dog collar. Here was a reassuring presence, a masculine foil. He was used to full effect in the scenes with delicate boys and Shanley’s vacillating younger nun (Sister James).
The more disquieting scenes, where the character first shows his fingernails to a group of miffed boys, where he tells them that “I wear them a little long…but that’s okay, because I keep them clean” – came as a creepy shock.
In Shanley’s new film Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a different route. His Father Flynn is physically rounder, certainly, but he is also softer around the emotional edges. When we first see Father Flynn’s fingernails in the film, then, they seem of-a-piece with his general moral construction.
Why? Primed by Meryl Streep’s Aloysius – who thinks Frosty The Snowman is heretical, and the use of ballpoint pens, inter alia, a sign of the decline of civilisation – the detail certainly seems to provoke our worst suspicions… but of what, exactly?   
This question has intrigued me since seeing the play in 2005.
It came back to me while watching the slightly inferior film.
What does such a detail, a priest’s longer-than-average fingernails, mean to us?
Certainly, when contrasted with the vim, and the strictness of Aloysius, Flynn’s fingernails speak of laxity, flabbiness, and what the nun repeatedly characterises as an ill wind. This wind, those fingernails, the “it” that she breathes in the heartbreaking line: “so it’s happened” referring to the sexual abuse of a boy at the Catholic school – are tied up with the great upheavals of the sexual liberation, and the historical period that Francis Fukuyama has called the Great Disruption. 
Audiences resonate to such nuances because they align with our experiences.
As Catholics, attuned to mystery and sign, even a minor detail appears to hold outsized influence.
The length of a priest’s fingernails, then, especially a certain kind of priest’s fingernails, can suggest alarming things about his moral character.
I cannot believe I’ve just written that line, but it must be true. How else to parse the peculiar genius of Doubt?
It seems right, of course, to suggest that the detail only has force because of its associations with effeminacy: Father Flynn’s fingernails are prissy. Effeminacy in males has, since ancient times, been associated in literature and art with urbanity, transgression, and decadence.
Beyond that, there is the association, easy to make, and often confirmed and celebrated by homoactivists and bigots alike, of effeminacy with homosexuality.
It is not much of a leap, from there, to discern a specious link between homosexuality and ephebophilia / paedophilia, but that leap is not made in Doubt. 
Rather, Father Flynn’s fingernails work so evocatively because they give the audience a grip on all of these whirling impressions, without alighting on any one explanation for his suspect behaviour. The impressions build a picture in the mind, and the picture seems to confirm, or at least suggest, a link between Flynn’s relative doctrinal leniency, odd personal hygiene, his sexual inclinations, and his complicity (or otherwise) in evil.
This interplay, and the ambivalence it sets up in the audience – people are usually split on the question of Flynn’s guilt – is a miraculous achievement of art.
It is also deeply troubling, even hard to take because, like Aloysius, we think we know what evil looks like. In its vanity, in its decadence, in its self-satisfaction we recognise its cruel vigour. We know it beyond the shadow of a doubt. We doubt its claims. And yet, like the Aloysius of other interpretations, too often we go off half-cocked, and we mistake our emotional certainty for objective proof of wrongdoing.
Still, any of us can become “crippled by doubt”. When we do this, we risk making room in our Churches for those who would equivocate over shameful acts. How to proceed? Because virtue is a habit, we can – as it were – start by cutting our fingernails.
But we can also pray for hardy moral heroes after the model of Sister Aloysius, and we can pray for the courage to doubt ourselves.
Sometimes, in some situations, when we have no hard evidence, and no clear direction, making it any easier than that would invite moral hazard.