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- April 05, 2004
- Vol. 61
- No. 13
Hollywood & Divine
The Passion Shows the Power of Religious Messages, While Churchgoing Stars Open Up About Their Own Beliefs
Granted, it doesn't have the lyricism of the 23rd Psalm, but thanks to the ministry of Mastermedia International Inc., which mails out free "Redemptive Prayers for Hollywood" flyers to 50,000 evangelical Christian subscribers, people can pray those words and perhaps move showbiz types to use their considerable influence only for good. The group also offers a Media Leader Prayer Calendar—available online too—so believers can focus their prayers simultaneously on alphabetically designated targets. On April 7, it's Independence Day director Roland Emmerich. The next day, Eminem. On the 9th, it's the entire cast and crew of Entertainment Tonight.
The calendar reveals what many conservative Christians feel about Hollywood—that it ignores their values. Despite high ratings for Joan of Arcadia on TV, numerous shout-outs to God on awards shows and stars such as Madonna and Mel Gibson speaking up about their religious beliefs, many Americans still feel alienated by the Hollywood studios' menu of coarse language, rampant sex, gay characters and certain Super Bowl halftime shows. "Hollywood, at heart, is anti-Christian—the only time you see churches are during funerals and weddings," declares Robert Knight, director of the D.C.-based Culture and Family Institute, who opposes programs like Will & Grace for "promoting a libertine lifestyle."
Don't expect the highly rated show suddenly to be replaced by a prime-time edition of The 700 Club. Still, it's not as if Hollywood execs haven't noticed the power of religious-themed projects, thanks to the monumental success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which has earned an astounding $300 million at the box office so far, defying all expectations. Nearly 45 percent of Americans have either seen the film or say they intend to, according to a March Gallup poll—evidence that the film's appeal extends far beyond evangelical Christians. Producer Frank Desiderio, who is also a Roman Catholic priest, saw the Passion principle in effect when ABC finally aired his long-shelved Judas TV movie last month. Though it fared poorly in the ratings, he says his calls are returned just a little quicker now. He didn't like The Passion for its violence but admits that the film "has raised the profile of [my] company. We've always said there are good stories out there. But it has been hard to make them."
Perhaps, but God has long had a high profile in Hollywood. The first version of The Ten Commandments was released in 1923, and stars from Gregory Peck to Jessica Simpson have spoken openly about their faith. Even before the success of The Passion, a crop of new projects with religious themes was in the works. Director Ron Howard is bringing the controversial novel The Da Vinci Code (which suggests that Mary Magdelene bore Jesus' child) to the big screen. Gladiator director Ridley Scott's epic Kingdom of Heaven, about the Crusades, is scheduled for next year. Disney plans a live-action adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Christian parable for kids by C.S. Lewis. Unlike The Passion, though, few big-studio projects deal directly with questions of belief and faith. For years Christian-themed entertainment has been treated as a niche market (see box, page 104), and conservative Christians are easy comic foils. (See Ned Flanders, the "hi-diddily-ho" holier-than-thou neighbor on The Simpsons, for one.) "We've been screaming for years that Christian folks are a large market looking for a good movie to take their families to see," says Hank Erwin, an Alabama state senator and Christian broadcaster. "They like movies like anybody else but don't like to be insulted."
Those in showbiz, not surprisingly, largely disagree with the notion that they're spiritually bankrupt. "Hollywood isn't a godless place, but the people who run the major entertainment companies are a pretty homogenous group and don't understand where the rest of the country is," says producer Gavin Polone (The Panic Room and Curb Your Enthusiasm), whose miniseries based on the Book of Revelation will air on NBC in the fall. Roma Downey, who starred in the 1994-2003 CBS show Touched by an Angel, recalls that before her series hit the airwaves "the idea of God and entertainment was decidedly unhip, even within the hallways of my own network. Somehow, it's like God equals 'unfashionable.' And Hollywood is all about how it looks." Since The Passion hit theaters, however, God is looking pretty good to the studios. "The primary religion practiced in Hollywood is money," says one exec. "We do not hesitate to worship false idols. If religion sells, we're going to do it." Gibson himself has hinted that he will next tell the story of Judah Maccabee, a Jewish warrior ca. 168 BC whose victory is commemorated during Hanukkah. Even Survivor creator Mark Burnett is onboard with Daughter of God, his first feature film, adapted from a novel about a female messiah. "Yes, more spiritual movies will be made," says Barnet Bain, producer of The Celestine Prophecy, based on the New Age bestseller. "But unless these films are authentic, they will be unsuccessful. Can there be anything emptier than the word of God in the voice of the unbeliever?"
As it happens, there are plenty of believers in Hollywood. You can find Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett at a Pentecostal church in South L.A.; Martin Sheen at the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Malibu; Steven Spielberg was seen at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, hugging Gwyneth Paltrow following his daughter's bat mitzvah. (His mom's kosher restaurant, the Milky Way, is located in the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.) There are also many more who don't go to church, but that is true elsewhere. More than 80 percent of Americans might call themselves Christian but, according to a recent survey, only 43 percent regularly attend church. MTV star Jessica Simpson can relate. "I travel 300 days of the year," she says, "but I definitely have my time with God, and that is my church."
The entertainment industry—like most other work-places—also believes in the separation of church and office. Hollywood has an unwritten rule, says Kirk Cameron: "It's 'We don't care what you believe, just keep it to yourself.'" Cameron, 33, once an atheist who played mischievous son Mike on Growing Pains, is now born again and starring in the Left Behind movies (which have earned an estimated $100 million), based on the megaselling Book of Revelation thrillers. Paula Cale, who costarred on Providence, says that although she is politically and socially liberal, her Mormonism makes her a black sheep in Hollywood. "People read that I am Mormon and think that I hate gay people. I am terrified to be judged in this city because of it."
Balancing faith and fame can also mean some tough choices. Cameron claims he has had to turn down no fewer than 100 jobs due to conflicts with his religious beliefs. Nonetheless, he says, "I think it's critical that a person is true to themselves and not change beliefs like a chameleon depending on who they are talking to." When the Jewish New Year fell on what was to be his first day on The West Wing, actor Joshua Malina says, "I was terrified [to ask for the day off], but I couldn't possibly work on Rosh Hashanah." Malina, a conservative Jew, put the question to his new bosses and, he reports, "they were very nice about it." According to her father, Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar, Uma Thurman has said no to several films that, he says, "condone horror." (She gives a pass to pal Quentin Tarantino, whose use of screen violence, says her dad, is "like a dance.") The Passion's staunch Catholic star Jim Caviezel has twice asked that his onscreen love scenes (in Angel Eyes and High Crimes) be made more modest. Born-again Stephen Baldwin says he will do bedroom scenes only if he's playing a married man or if there is a redemptive story line and adds, "You will not see me in a sequel to The Usual Suspects anytime soon."
Before Everybody Loves Raymond made her a star, Patricia Heaton (raised Catholic, now a practicing Presbyterian) was sent a film script that she felt was exploitative. Though broke, she never auditioned. Fortunately, Heaton, who says grace before meals and takes her four sons to church weekly, found a home on Raymond—one of the few shows to depict church-going as a matter of course. "Most people have some kind of faith," she says. "It makes the show more real." Keeping the faith in Hollywood, though, poses special challenges. "This business tests you constantly: the materialism, the pride, the ambition," says Heaton. "[The apostle] Paul says, 'I have died to myself and it's no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.' We're supposed to 'die to ourselves'—and I'm paying a publicist $3,000 a month to make sure everybody knows who I am?"
Madonna has always publicized her spiritual growth—from Catholicism to embracing Hinduism through yoga, and now the Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah. Demi Moore and Britney Spears are also sporting the red-string Kabbalah bracelet, meant to ward off evil (see box, page 96). And Tom Cruise praises the virtues of Scientology in an attempt to demystify the controversial religion—which he shares with John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and other stars—to his fans.
"I've always found it ironic that Hollywood is seen as the godless place full of debauchery," says Barbara Hall, a Methodist and the creator of the God-is-one-of-us hit Joan of Arcadia. "Everyone I know has four children and is in bed by 9 o'clock." Still, the type of conservative Christians so thirsty for a film like The Passion are underrepresented among the Hollywood elite; it may surprise evangelicals who decried director Kevin Smith's 1999 comedy Dogma as blasphemous (it featured an abortionist who was a direct descendant of Jesus) to note that when the credits roll in the Catholic director's films, God gets the top spot. "It p---- the wife off a bit," says Smith. "But God always gets thanked first."
Heaton says she understands the disconnect many feel when they go to the movies. "People look at the stuff that comes out of Hollywood and think, 'Who are the people making this garbage? They couldn't possibly have any connection to God.'" Yet even her show doesn't meet the demands of some frustrated viewers. Darrell Bock, a Dallas Theological Seminary professor, likes Everybody Loves Raymond but calls the show's depiction of the absurdly narrow-minded Protestant in-laws "typical of the stereotyping that goes on." Says Mac Brunson, the senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Dallas: "It's okay to be tolerant of everything but an evangelical Christian. In Hollywood, when it comes to the church, they go for the bizarre and psychotic. In Runaway Jury, there was a Baptist preacher's wife who was having an affair and had an abortion. I don't know anyone that's happened to." He has hope that in the post-Passion era, Hollywood will respect the audience that has blessed Gibson with epic riches. Brunson says he doesn't need more biblical sagas, just something he can watch with the family. In fact, he's looking forward to the May romantic comedy Raising Helen, in which Kate Hudson plays a woman dating a pastor. "I'm curious to see that," he says. "Preachers can fall in love and act human. One time, I'd love to see them capture that and get it right."
Memo to Dr. Brunson—the day to collectively pray for Kate Hudson is May 30.
Allison Adato. Reported by Tom Cunneff, Ruth Andrew Ellenson, Maureen Harrington, Oliver Jones, Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Lyndon Stambler and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Mark Dagostino and Rebecca Paley in New York City, Susan Mandel and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., Nancy Wilstach in Birmingham, Ala., and Darla Atlas in Dallas
- Tom Cunneff,
- Ruth Andrew Ellenson,
- Maureen Harrington,
- Oliver Jones,
- Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Frank Swertlow,
- Mark Dagostino,
- Rebecca Paley,
- Susan Mandel,
- Macon Morehouse,
- Nancy Wilstach,
- Darla Atlas,
- Kenneth Miller.
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