No-nonsense nun dazzles on Cinemax

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

If your image of Catholic nuns stopped somewhere between "The Singing Nun" and "The Sound of Music," then you're in for a surprise. The award-winning documentary "Sister Helen" (7 p.m., Cinemax) profiles the no-nonsense, occasionally foul-mouthed, Sinatra-obsessed Benedictine Sister Helen Travis, who founded a center in New York's South Bronx for serious addicts.

The recovering heroin junkies and crack addicts live with Sister Helen in a rundown building supported only by the tenant's rent and private charities. There, Sister Helen ladles out the tough love and discipline that her self-deceptive charges need to survive. But they also share meals, laughs and profound conversations about their lives, hopes and lost opportunities.

Unlike many nuns who enter a convent in their teens, Helen only became a nun at age 56, after the deaths of her husband and two sons. A former steady drinker, Helen lost one son to violence and another to drugs.

She saw her vocation as a chance at redemption. "I tried to do for other people's sons what I didn't do for my own," she mournfully admits. "This house is a second chance to do it right."

A funny, moving and unforgettable character study, "Sister Helen" would make a terrific television movie or big-screen motion picture. It just might be difficult to cast a contemporary actress who could capture Helen's combination of ornery feistiness and big-hearted compassion.

While I admire the "Law & Order" franchise for packing plenty of twists and turns into each hourlong story, this installment seems rushed, and some of the performances almost over-the-top. This commemorative episode is not one of the series' best.

Look for Mickey Hargitay (father of star Mariska Hargitay and one-time husband of Jayne Mansfield) in a cameo.

Tonight's other highlights

Late night

Alec Baldwin appears on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes Billy Bob Thornton and Kid Rock on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

William H. Macy, Heidi Klum and The Strokes are booked on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... Dana Delany and Pauly Shore appear on "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" (11:37 p.m., CBS).