With God, and the Constitution, on His Side

A 1988 Film Anticipated ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and Puts It in a Discomfiting Light

By J. Hoberman

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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A Hollywood movie about Jesus Christ, released in a presidential election year, is denounced by religious leaders, inspires antisemitic demonstrations and becomes an organizing tool for Christian fundamentalists: “The Last Temptation of Christ,” director Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, anticipated Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” even as it puts the current debate over that upcoming movie in a discomfiting light.

No less than “The Passion,” “The Last Temptation” was a personal work. Scorsese traced his ambition to make a movie on the life of Jesus Christ back to his seeing the 1953 biblical extravaganza “The Robe” as an 11-year-old altar boy. In 1972, the director read Kazantzakis’s novel and optioned the screen rights. (The book, which portrays a human Christ unsure of his divinity, was already controversial, having been placed on the Papal Index of banned books soon after its publication in 1955.) Paul Schrader, who had written “Taxi Driver,” adapted the novel and, in early 1983, Paramount Pictures agreed to finance the production. Soon after “The Last Temptation” was announced, a group called the Evangelical Sisters organized protests against Paramount’s parent company, Gulf + Western, and, by autumn, the studio canceled the project.

Four years later, Scorsese’s then-agent Mike Ovitz managed to place a revised version of “The Last Temptation” at Universal. The picture was shot on location in Morocco in late 1987. Organized protests — including petitions, phone calls, mailings and radio broadcasts — began building the following spring, months before the movie’s scheduled late-September release. The major target was not, however, the Greek Orthodox novelist Kazantzakis. Neither was it the Roman Catholic director Scorsese, nor the Protestant screenwriter Schrader (who had grown up in a Calvinist sect so strict that movies were proscribed).

Animus was instead directed at Lew Wasserman, chief executive of Universal’s corporate owner MCA, as well as MCA president Sidney Sheinberg and Universal Pictures president Tom Pollock. All three men were Jews and Democrats. Indeed, despite his friendly ties with his former client (and the current president) Ronald Reagan, Wasserman was the most important Democratic fund-raiser in Hollywood. After the Rev. Bill Bright, president of the Campus Crusade for Christ, offered to buy “The Last Temptation” from Universal, so as to destroy it, the Rev. R. L. Hymers Jr. and 200 members of his fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle picketed Universal. “These Jewish producers with a lot of money are taking a swipe at our religion,” Hymers explained as a small aircraft flew over the demonstration pulling a banner that read “Wasserman Fans Jew-Hatred w/ ‘Temptation.’”

Events heated up during the late-July Democratic convention in Atlanta where, according to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the eve of the convention, rumors concerning the movie had spread throughout the city’s conservative churches. The weekend preceding the convention, the Journal Constitution published a large display ad paid for by the Rehoboth Baptist Church in Georgia denouncing “The Last Temptation.” On July 20, one day before the Democrats in Atlanta nominated Michael Dukakis — soon to be excoriated for his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union — Hymers and his supporters staged a bizarre Passion play outside Wasserman’s Beverly Hills home. Demonstrators chanted “Jewish money, Jewish money,” as an actor dressed as Jesus knelt before a wooden cross and was lashed by a “movie producer” in a business suit. Other protesters carried signs comparing Universal to Judas Iscariot, or maintaining that “Wasserman Endangers Israel.”

Wasserman was scarcely a Jewish community leader. At that time, according to his biographer Connie Bruck, he had no particular association with organized Jewish life but — having introduced Pope John Paul II at Universal Amphitheater in 1987 and contributed to the construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels — did enjoy close relations with the Los Angeles archdiocese. In the Los Angeles Times, Cardinal Roger Mahony praised Wasserman by name and strongly objected to the “anti-Semitic implications” of the protests against “The Last Temptation.” Still, the cardinal noted that he hadn’t seen the movie and thought that the Church might declare it “morally offensive.”

That same week, the Moral Majority’s Rev. Jerry Falwell predicted that “The Last Temptation” movie would “create a wave of anti-Semitism,” and the Rev. Donald Wildmon, then an obscure Baptist minister from Tupelo, Miss., mailed a half-million fliers on behalf of his American Family Association characterizing Universal as a “company whose decision-making body [was] dominated by non-Christians.” Wildmon also wrongly quoted Sheinberg and Pollock to the effect that “Christians will not stop Universal from releasing the film” — an assertion emblazoned on the cover of the American Family Association mailing.

Pat Buchanan, who had served as President Reagan’s communication director for two years (urging the president, among other things, to “stand tall” at the SS-cemetery in Bitburg and in opposition to economic sanctions against South Africa), was the first to identify the campaign against “The Last Temptation” with a larger jihad: The battle over the film represented “one more skirmish in the century’s struggle over whose values, whose beliefs shall be exalted in American culture, and whose may be derided and disparaged.” In his syndicated July 27 column, Buchanan compared the movie to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and accused Hollywood of “assaulting the Christian community in a way it would never dare assault the black community, the Jewish community or the gay community.” Christians, he wrote, were “America’s unfashionable majority.”

Buchanan had considered running for the Republican nomination in 1988; Rev. Pat Robertson, who won the Iowa caucuses, was still a candidate for the nomination that would soon go to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman wrote to Robertson to express his concern regarding the antisemitic nature of the “Last Temptation” debate and received a reply stating that the movie was bound to be seen as “a Jewish affront to Jesus Christ.” (When Foxman responded by asking Robertson to speak out against antisemitism, Robertson suggested that Foxman was “shrilly blaming Christians for a problem caused by MCA.”) For his part, Wildmon contacted Sheinberg, accusing MCA of a deliberate anti-Christian bias and asking, “How many Christians are in the top positions of MCA/Universal? How many Christians sit on the board of directors of MCA?”

As Universal strategically advanced the movie’s opening to early August, demonstrations continued, including one staged outside the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a synagogue to which Wasserman was erroneously thought to belong. A week before the rescheduled premiere, two theater chains — United Artists and General Cinema Corporation, representing a combined total of some 3,300 screens — announced that they would not show the film. Meanwhile, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee reported local antisemitic reactions in Sarasota, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Dayton, Ohio. On

August 9, the same day Wildmon characterized “The Last Temptation” as “blasphemous” on “Nightline” and Hymers staged a demonstration in which Wasserman was represented nailing Jesus to the cross, the American Catholic church officially condemned the film, which it rated “O” for morally offensive.

In Calcutta, Mother Teresa issued a statement suggesting that if U.S. Catholics intensified their prayers, “Our Blessed Mother [Mary] will see that this film is removed from your land.” In Washington, Rep. Bob Dorman, Republican of California, introduced a resolution demanding that Universal withdraw “The Last Temptation.”

On August 11, the eve of the premiere of “The Last Temptation,” some 25,000 Catholics and Christian Fundamentalists rallied outside Universal Studios. “Christian-bashing is over,” Wildmon told the crowd. Universal opened the movie under tight security in nine cites. There were picket lines but only isolated disruptions. A theater was vandalized in Los Angeles; a print was stolen and a screen slashed in Salt Lake City.

Although “The Last Temptation” was banned in some Southern cities, including Savannah, Ga.; Montgomery, Ala., and New Orleans, La., there is a sense in which the crusade against the movie and its makers was subsumed in the larger issues of the Republican campaign — predicated as it was on support for the pledge of allegiance and animus toward flag-burners, the ACLU, furloughed Massachusetts convict Willie Horton and anyone who might be tarred with the “L word.”

Although no attempt was made to link Dukakis, the most ethnically identified major presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy, to Kazantzakis, an undated flyer distributed in Los Angeles by a group called the Christian Anti-Defamation League wondered what “the Jewish wife of Democratic Candidate Michael Dukakis [thought] of this effort to slander and defame Christ … Will Kitty and Michael Dukakis speak out against this Anti-Christian slander? … Will blacks really want to vote for Michael Dukakis knowing that his wife supports the slanders of the Jews at MCA/Universal?”

Midway through the Republican Convention, which opened three days after “The Last Temptation,” conservative columnist Norman Podhoretz mourned in the pages of the New York Post that “until a few days ago, there was a good chance that George Bush might do reasonably well with Jewish voters.” But the “uproar” over Scorsese’s movie had diminished that possibility. Thanks to “The Last Temptation,” “the Democrats have been dealt a card with which to trump the Jewish fear of Jesse Jackson.” The 1988 campaign would confirm Christian fundamentalists as a key Republican Party constituency.

The attacks on “The Last Temptation” went international in late summer as a group of concerned Catholics, including director Franco Zeffirelli, attempted to have the movie removed from the Venice Film Festival — an effort that not only failed but was tainted by reports that Zeffirelli had characterized the movie as having been produced by “that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles.” “The Last Temptation” was banned in Israel and India, both of which saw it as a possible incitement to religious strife. Screens were slashed in Athens, but the most violent response was in France, where theaters in Paris, Lyons, Marseilles,and Nice were attacked by ultra-conservative Catholic groups who clubbed movie-goers, threw stink-bombs and committed arson.

In the end, Universal reaped the whirlwind. Thanks in part to months of publicity, “The Last Temptation” proved to be a hit, returning several million dollars more than its cost in domestic revenues alone; the movie was well-reviewed and Scorsese nominated for an Oscar. The main beneficiaries, however, were those who organized against “The Last Temptation.” Wildmon suggested that God was using the movie as “a lightning rod to draw millions of Christians into the battle for moral sanity, decency and respect for others.” (Newsday reported that his organization made over a million dollars fundraising against “The Last Temptation.”)

“The Last Temptation” was indeed a godsend that served to energize the Christian right at a critical time — arriving, as it did, in the wake of the demoralizing sex scandals that, earlier in the year, had disgraced the televangelical superstars Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. The movie turned moral indignation back on Hollywood; by providing a particular artifact around which to organize religious and political protest, it anticipated what soon came to be called the “culture wars.” By the summer of 1989, when Blockbuster Video decided not to distribute “The Last Temptation,” the battle over arts funding and public broadcasting was in full bloom and the now-famous Wildmon led the charge against the National Endowment of the Arts.

The attacks on “The Last Temptation” also demonstrated the conditions by which antisemites might construe Hollywood as an essentially Jewish enterprise. At the height of the furor, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee noted that the anti-Universal demonstrations combined the myth of Jews as the masters of American media with the older myth of Jews as Christ-killers. Mel Gibson gives this an additional spin. More deliberately than “The Last Temptation,” “The Passion” appears to court negative publicity — Gibson casts himself as a victim by provoking the presumably Jewish media to “crucify” his outsider film. Unlike Scorsese, he has God, as well as the Constitution, on his side.






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