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SMALL SCREEN TAKES ON THE BIG ISSUES--AGAIN : Show-Biz Star Makers Dazzled by a Luminary From Another Galaxy

September 17, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It would be fascinating, and staggering, to know the combined annual earnings of the latter-day moguls, studio executives, corporate executives, producers, stars, directors and writers who sat, cheerfully immobilized, for the better part of three hours Tuesday afternoon, awaiting and then hearing Pope John Paul II.

In the mind's eye you could see phone messages piling up like snowdrifts during a blizzard on mahogany desks back in the paneled offices. Looking around, you began to wonder who was watching the movie store.

But an industry that manufactures celebrities and regards all but the starriest of them with a calm bordering on indifference had turned out, from the highest levels, to see a celebrity it was most indubitably impressed by. This was an indubitable star from another galaxy.

"Please remain seated as His Holiness enters the ballroom," the voice on the public address system said. Nobody obeyed. The crowd of 1,500 was on its feet in seconds, which meant that only the aisle-standers got to watch the Pope make his white-robed way up the aisle to the podium.

The Pope is not at his charismatic best reading a prepared speech, especially one written for him in the clear but austere and impersonal textbook English of his address to the communicators at the Registry Hotel.

The waiting crowd had seen and heard the easy, joking warmth of his exchanges with the 6,200 young people at the nearby Universal Amphitheatre. Only when he finished the prepared text was there a flash of that relaxed warmth, when he said the American bishops had counseled him that unless he was introduced to Hollywood, his trip would have been "without merit."

Film maker Peter Bogdanovich observed that "he said Hollywood with a twinkle in his eye, as if he was making fun of the word and impressed by the word. We know what he meant. We think of it both ways as well."

The Pope was running a bit late, and some last-minute cuts were made in his address, which had been initially drafted by a Los Angeles priest and then rewritten and formalized by an East Coast Jesuit. A Vatican aide said the trimmed sentences were nevertheless to be considered as having been read. It was too bad the communicators missed hearing them.

The media--according to the advance text of the speech--"have untold possibilities for good, ominous possibilities for destruction. It is the difference between death and life--the death or life of the spirit. . . . The challenge of Moses to the people of Israel is applicable to all of us today: 'I set before you life or death. . . . Choose life.' "

Elsewhere the Pope was to have said, "Social communications must support human dignity because the world is constantly tempted to forget it. Whether in news or in drama, whether in song or in story, you are challenged to respect what is human and to recognize what is good. Human beings must never be despised because of limitations, flaws, disorders or even sins."

In one of the most telling of the dropped paragraphs, the Pope was to say, "Daily cares oppress you in ways different from those arising in other kinds of work. Your industry reflects the fast pace of the news and changing tastes. It deals with vast amounts of money that bring with them their own problems. It places you under extreme pressure to be successful, without telling you what 'success' really is. Working constantly with images, you face the temptation of seeing them as reality. Seeking to satisfy the dreams of millions, you can become lost in a world of fantasy."

When you think about it, most of the writing about Hollywood--fiction and nonfiction, serious and exploitative--from its earliest years has finally dealt with the transience and the hollowness of success, and with the way, uniquely Hollywood's own, in which fantasies become the only reality, and the ordinary realities of daily life begin to appear as remote and irrelevant as once upon a time.

It was evident from comments before and after the speech that the listeners expected a far sharper dressing-down for the media's sins than they received.

The Pope indeed gave a concise, sharp catalogue of the sins inherent in appealing to the public's baser instincts: pornography, violence, a casual attitude toward sex and human life, and appeals to "greed through materialism and consumerism and irresponsible individualism."

But his prevailing tone was positive--a reminder of the media's immense powers of choice, their ability to opt for good or evil, uplift or debasement. It was an appeal to the dignity of the creative community. If the decision-makers in the audience (and there were hardly any others) felt the sting of the reprimand, mild as it was, the conversation at a reception after the speech made clear that no one minded being addressed with such serious respect.

Meantime, the world's work had waited. The pontiff made a slow exit, his entourage initially misdirected to the rear doors, so that he made two passages through the crowd, touching and being touched all the way. He had hardly got out the door when the executives made a rushing, tumultuous dash to get to those phone messages, and all the choices.

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