Hollywood vs. Selected Religions

Let’s run a quick test. Say that you have been looking through reviews of recent Hollywood movies. You are reading along, trying to get a sense of what a movie is all about, when you see the word “Palestinian.” The next word is:

A. businessmanB. scientistC. studentD. terrorist

You now read reviews of movies released after 1960. You read the word “fundamentalist.” The word preceding it is:

A. lovableB. educatedC. principledD. bigoted

Back in 1994, Michael Medved, the orthodox Jew who had attacked Hollywood in his book, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (1992), followed up with a PBS documentary, Hollywood vs. Religion. Medved in those days reviewed movies for PBS. I never saw his documentary on PBS, but I own a copy of the videotape, now unfortunately out of print.

Medved makes an important point: openly anti-religious movies consistently lose money — lots of money. The classic example is “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), whose presentation of a confused, self-doubting Jesus outraged Christians. It lost at least $13 million. Medved says that producing these movies is ideologically motivated. They represent a statement of faith by the liberal community that dominates Hollywood. These people are rich, and they are willing to pour big money down predictable sinkholes “for the good of the cause.”

He provides a revealing chronology. In 1959, the biggest Hollywood blockbuster was “Ben-Hur,” which won a record 11 Academy Awards. The next year brought the break in Hollywood’s tradition: “Inherit the Wind,” a movie version of a highly inaccurate 1955 play about the 1925 Scopes’ trial, although it presented the story as fiction. (Elsewhere, I have presented the story of that trial in its historical context, a still-continuing battle for control over the content of public school education: taxpayers vs. a self-certified academic cartel.) From that point on, says Medved, the industry’s self-imposed restrictions on anti-religious movies steadily broke down.

In 1961, the Motion Picture Academy awarded the Oscar for best actor to Burt Lancaster for “Elmer Gantry,” the movie version of Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel about a morally corrupt evangelist. It had taken over three decades to get that book onto the silver screen. The best thing I can say for the movie is that Lewis’s Gantry was worse. (Rent it. It does not hold up artistically. “Ben-Hur” does.)

Medved says that the old Hollywood’s Jewish moguls knew that their customers were Americans, and Americans are religious. The Jews who created the film industry, in author Neal Gabler’s phrase, as “an empire of their own,” were wise enough and profit-motivated enough not to launch a direct assault on the religious mores of the country. They wanted in on the American dream, not to undermine it.

The movies were favorable to American religious and moral values most of the time. Gangsters and adulteresses either died or repented before the movie was over. One exception, from “Gone With the Wind” to “Pretty Woman,” has been the familiar theme of “the prostitute with a heart of gold.” Belle Watling, the madam in “Gone With the Wind,” did not die in the end, nor did she repent, and she was pictured as “basically decent, except for that.” This culminated with “Pretty Woman,” where the lead character, a prostitute, marries the rich hero and gets social revenge on the Beverly Hills saleswomen who had scorned her. (I was rooting for the saleswomen.)

When “Chariots of Fire” won the 1981 Oscar for best picture, this blindsided Hollywood. The picture had been produced in England. It, too, holds up. (What does seem strange is that a Catholic actor played the Jew, Abrahams, and a homosexual actor played the Christian, Liddell. But the casting worked. The homosexual’s only other memorable role before he died of AIDS was in “Gandhi,” where he played a minister — a liberal, fortunately.)

Selective Demonization

On December 11, I watched a rented video, “Escape from L.A.” (1996), starring Kurt Russell. The basic theme has long appealed to me: how to get out of Los Angeles and stay out. This movie was a sequel to “Escape from New York” (1981), which ignited the adult phase of the career of Disney child star Russell — one of the few child stars ever to make the transition. (His 1980 comedy, “Used Cars,” was a riot, at least for those of us who were tired of Jimmy Carter’s inflation, but it failed at the box office.)

This movie undermined the reputation of director John Carpenter. The word “stinker” doesn’t do it justice; it is not that good. The villain is a President-for-life, played as a cartoon caricature by the once-talented Cliff Robertson. The President had moved the nation’s capital to Lynchburg, Virginia. (Get it? The home town of You Know Who!) He is a tyrant, a liar, a coward, and a fundamentalist, who has imposed a terrible penalty for moral criminals: permanent exile to Los Angeles, which had been turned into an island by an earthquake. The year is 2013. Stacy Keatch — who long, long ago was America’s most promising young Shakespearian actor — turned in the only halfway decent performance as a ruthless military policeman.

The movie, whose script was co-written by Carpenter and Russell, was an attack on religion and moral values. It included a rarity, a Muslim who was not a villain. She was a slut, but a basically decent one. (“A slut with a heart of gold.”) She had been exiled to Los Angeles because she had been a Muslim in South Dakota, and this had become illegal. You can sense the quality of the screenplay. (Casting Peter Fonda as an aging surfer was the movie’s one touch of realism.)

After it ended, I began to rewind it. The screen went blank briefly, and I found myself watching the NBC movie of the week, “The Natalie Cole Story.” It was a pretty good movie. It followed her descent from a successful popular singer through drug addiction, divorce, bankruptcy, and recovery through spiritual renewal. It presented her as a serious Christian.

She narrated the film and starred in its closing scenes of her more mature years. I had not seen this technique before. It worked.

Natalie Cole is a mini-icon. Her father was a full-scale icon, and deservedly so. He was in every sense a gentleman. He was the first American black to cross over that most exclusive of color lines, the popular love ballad. The public passively accepted the idea that he could sing love songs to millions of white women. Almost nobody complained, and after the one attempted violent attack on him in the South, he dismissed it as not being representative of anything except one man’s hate. Nat King Cole had advantages, of course: a magnificent voice, great musical taste, and superb orchestral arrangements. The term “beloved” applied to him and Bing Crosby, but to no other pop singers that I can think of. There was no way to give Natalie Cole the Elmer Gantry treatment.

She made it clear that Jesus Christ is her God, that her faith had delivered her, and her lack of faith had led her into drugs and despair. She had almost destroyed herself, as she makes clear in her narrative. She ended the movie with these words: “It is all grace, but I try not to waste it.” I cannot think of a closing line in any movie that made a more important theological point.

Was this movie a break from Hollywood vs. religion? Not at all. Two groups have only rarely, if ever, had their religions pictured as corrupt by Hollywood: Jews and blacks. There is no equivalent of Elmer Gantry in their celluloid ranks.

The lesson? Artistic self-policing works just fine when the groups on-screen are part of the liberals’ agenda for social reform.

It is clear who the main targets are today: conservative Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims. Mormons are left alone. So are Quakers, the Amish, and other pacifist groups. These groups are perceived as not having enough votes to give liberals political trouble, at least not outside of Utah. Liberals are willing to write off Utah.

To Inflict Pain

In 1988, when “The Last Temptation of Christ” was released, a few pastors in Tyler, Texas decided that this was too much. They organized a boycott. Fundamentalist pastors rarely organize local boycotts, but they had had enough. They asked their members to agree for one year not to attend any local theater that showed it. Then they approached the manager and told him that it would hurt his business to show it. He showed it anyway. A year later the theater was bankrupt. The building was refurbished and rented to retail stores.

Boycotts may not work at the national level, where movie producers have deep pockets, but most of America’s movie chains today are in bankruptcy, and the others are close behind. Red ink is flowing. Local year-long boycotts of all 12 or 16 screens can have positive effects. “When you grab them by their tickets, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Back in the days of the Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and the Legion of Decency, Protestants had an ally that understood the importance of tight church discipline, and also how to use this discipline to make persuasive suggestions to outsiders. The Catholic hierarchy made it clear to Hollywood that it would cost producers big money if certain standards were violated on-screen. This led to some silly rules, such as twin beds for married couples, but the overall effect was positive. The Legion of Decency used the free market to pressure profit-seeking filmmakers to restrain themselves. But the Legion went out of existence in the late 1960’s, along with Catholic Church discipline. A new system of ratings was self-imposed by the industry. Standards began to decline immediately, and this includes artistic standards.

My suggestion: We could use a few more legions and a lot more decency.

December 13, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.