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From divine to god-awful

'Bruce Almighty' is the latest film about the deity, a touchy subgenre that has proved hard to get right.

May 22, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Since the creation of cinema, filmmakers have produced countless movies about Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph, guardian angels, the saints and even Satan. But God is another matter.

Film historian Jan-Christopher Horak says the main reason why God has rarely been depicted on celluloid is that, save for Christianity, several religions -- including Judaism and Islam -- forbid portrayals of God. "Of course," he adds, "in other religions, like Buddhism, the concept is one that is spiritual -- that is not made visible in any corporal form."

Studios, Horak adds, also shy away from God because "everyone has a different concept of what God is, and the chance of offending someone might be great."

With that in mind, few directors have had the chutzpah to depict God as one of us on the silver screen, and it's difficult to pull off. On film, God has been everything from rolling thunder to burning bushes, as in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments." But when the Lord does appear in human form, it is usually in a comedy.

In Jim Carrey's latest, "Bruce Almighty," opening Friday, Oscar-nominated actor Morgan Freeman plays a God who turns over the reins of the world for about a week to Bruce (Carrey) after becoming sick and tired of hearing the mortal complain about how he runs the universe. The sentimental comedy reunites Carrey with his "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Liar Liar" director Tom Shadyac.

Perhaps the best known comedic image of God is George Burns, who starred in three heavenly comedies: 1977's "Oh, God!," 1980's "Oh God! Book II" and 1984's "Oh God, You Devil," in which he also played his nemesis. The first film, directed by Carl Reiner and written by Larry Gelbart, was a charming comedy fantasy in which God arrives on Earth as a genial old man in glasses who possesses the wit and wisdom of a Borscht Belt comic. God singles out an average Joe family man (John Denver) to preach his message.

One of the earliest movies featuring God was 1936's "Green Pastures," which was based on the 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage comedy by Marc Connelly. It's a lighthearted account of the Bible featuring an all-black cast. The film is set in a Sunday school where the teacher begins relating stories from the Old Testament. As he speaks, the characters come to life.

Rex Ingram, who plays the parts of Adam and Hezdrel, also tackles the role of God, here known as "De Lawd," who speaks in black colloquialisms, even referring to Gabriel as "Gabe."

Richard Pryor is the voice of the irreverent almighty -- known as "G.O.D." -- in the forgettable 1980 religious satire "In God We Trust." Marty Feldman plays a Trappist monk who sets out to save the monastery from bankruptcy and ends up asking Pryor's deity for the cash.

Back in 1968, ads for Otto Preminger's ill-fated comedy "Skidoo!" played up the fact that Groucho Marx was playing the role of God. But in this big-budget misfire, which features Jackie Gleason going on an LSD trip and a fiftysomething Carol Channing stripping to her undies, God is not the almighty but a ruthless gangster. "Skidoo" was unfortunately Marx's last feature film role.

More recently, a woman played God in the form of Grammy Award-winning singer Alanis Morissette in Kevin Smith's controversial 1999 religious satire, "Dogma."

Even TV has delved into religious comedy with the poorly received 2000 animated comedy, "God, the Devil and Bob." In this satire, James Garner was the voice of God. Even Garner couldn't save the series, whose dismal ratings prompted NBC to yank it from the network lineup.

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