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Mel Gibson Commits a Sin of Omission

The filmmaker has ignored Hollywood's rules about Jesus.

September 25, 2003|Thomas Doherty | Thomas Doherty is chairman of the film studies program at Brandeis University.

Cecil B. DeMille was smarter than Mel Gibson. In 1927, when DeMille filmed his version of the life of Christ, "The King of Kings," he covered all the theological bases by placing on the payroll a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest and a rabbi. Gibson, director and coauthor of "The Passion," billed as the most authentic version of the life and death of Christ ever filmed, refused to have the high priests of official religion vet his vision, and the way things are going, they're going to crucify him.

Though "The Passion" won't be released until Ash Wednesday in April, it has already sparked a storm of controversy because of fears that Gibson will resurrect not the good word of the New Testament but the old libel of the Jews as "Christ killers."

Responding to Gibson's unrepentant defense of the film in last week's New Yorker, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, accused the director of entertaining "views that can only be described as anti-Semitic."

Yet besides the backfire from two millenniums of anti-Semitism in Western civilization, the premature debate over "The Passion" also highlights the usually congenial but sometimes touchy relationship among Jews, Christians and Hollywood. After all, the glib definition of the movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood was "a Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America" -- an ecumenical arrangement that required all denominations to sacrifice serious doctrinal differences before the altar of pure entertainment.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 29, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Ash Wednesday -- A Thursday Commentary article on Mel Gibson's "The Passion" incorrectly stated that Ash Wednesday falls in April next year. It will be in February.

As a result, the figure of Christ has always been a minor player on the Hollywood screen. Not only does the Old Testament God rain down more spectacular special effects, he is less liable to be divisive to either side of the Judeo-Christian hyphen.

Of course, the American Jews who prospered in the motion picture industry had good reason to seek a consensus religiosity. From its earliest days, Hollywood was a convenient target for nativist bigots, a site condemned as a Sodom on the Pacific, with the Jewish moguls smeared as money-changers corrupting the temple of Christian America.

In 1922, when studio heads founded the Motion Picture Assn. of America, they selected Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian church elder, to be the official face of the industry. Ever since, a politically connected Christian of unimpeachable propriety has been Hollywood's preferred representative; Italian Catholic Jack Valenti has held the position since 1966.

Likewise, Christianity was accorded sacred status in the Hollywood Production Code that regulated film content from 1934 until 1968. "The name of Jesus Christ should never be used except in reverence," commanded the code.

Not that any popular art in America really needs official guidance to genuflect before mainstream orthodoxies. Traditionally, then, when Christ did appear on screen, the portrait was at once awestruck and antiseptic -- think of clean-shaven dreamboat Jeffrey Hunter in Nicholas Ray's "King of Kings" (1961) or brooding Nordic icon Max von Sydow in George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965).

More commonly, Christ was a spectral off-screen presence, too holy to be depicted by a mortal actor. In William Wyler's "Ben Hur" (1959), Hollywood's most adroit union of Judeo-Christian sensibilities, Christ is mainly suggested by hosannas on the soundtrack and beams of light from the side of the screen.

Only with the collapse of the Production Code did offbeat and irreverent portraits dare to desecrate the image: countercultural ("Jesus Christ Superstar," 1973), blasphemous (Monty Python's "Life of Brian," 1979) and hallucinatory (Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," 1988).

Overall, however, throughout Hollywood history, avoidance -- not reverence or sacrilege -- has been the guiding principle. Though the crucifixion of Christ as related in the Gospels is a public domain narrative of proven durability, the tangle of political sensitivities, theological squabbles and dramatic problems has tended to foreclose options on what would otherwise be a high-concept scenario.

Significantly, Hollywood's most successful translator of the Bible -- DeMille -- was at heart a pagan. His religious epics spring to life only when the sinners set up the golden calf and boogie down for a colorful orgy. By contrast, the auteur of "Braveheart" -- another film in which the hero is tortured to death for his people -- is a true believer, a devout Catholic who belongs to a conservative splinter sect that celebrates the Latin Mass and rejects the reforms of Vatican II.

Perhaps the real reason that "The Passion" has already stirred such interest and ire is that Gibson has produced a religious epic that is really about his religion.

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