By Oren Rawls

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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Mel at 13, with Tallit: While we here at the Forward were busy compiling this year’s list of the 50 most influential members of the American Jewish community, the folks over at Entertainment Weekly were putting together their 14th annual “Power List” of Hollywood movers and shakers.

The third spot on our list went to Anti-Defamation League chief Abraham Foxman, who made headlines during the last year for, among other things, lambasting Mel Gibson for his upcoming movie about Jesus. For its part, the pop-culture bible’s October 24 assessment of Tinseltown power lists Gibson at No. 13 — and also references the “actor-writer-director-producer” to explain how its computes Hollywood power dynamics.

“The formula: P=C+B+IxH,” Entertainment Weekly’s editorial staff calculates. “C refers to Control, as in getting and doing exactly as you want. (Fancy making a movie about Jesus in Aramaic? You can!) B is Bankability (you make money for studios or labels or publishing houses — and lots of it). I is for Influence, or the ability to push culture in bold new directions; H is for Heat, the most unstable element of all — the one that gets everyone talking about you.”

Since “The Passion” began garnering headlines, Gibson has certainly felt the last variable in Entertainment Weekly’s formula. Interfaith temperatures have reached a boiling point over his film: Critics warn that the movie’s message of Jewish culpability in Jesus’ death will encourage antisemitism, while its backers are crying religious censorship. In the calculus of Hollywood, such publicity is literally made for the movies.

“Nothing says power like self-financing a potentially offensive, stomach-churningly violent $25 million epic about the death of Jesus Christ in which most of the dialogue is spoken in ancient Aramaic,” Entertainment Weekly says by way of justifying Gibson’s spot on the list. But in a word of caution to Gibson, the celebrity-studded magazine adds — to what are usually laudatory, back-patting blurbs — that “there’s no better way to lose said power. By this time next year, we’ll know which way ‘The Passion’ blows Gibson’s standing in Hollywood.”

* * *

… and Four Thumbs Down: While the still-unreleased biblical epic has been seen by no more than a limited number of pundits and religious figures, a hint of what kind of public reception “The Passion” can expect is provided in the November 17 issue of the New York Post. The conservative tabloid got its occasionally yellow hands on a grainy, second-generation copy of Mel’s movie, and showed the tape to a rabbi, a priest, a professor of early Christianity, a Post reader selected at random and the Post’s film critic.

The verdict: four thumbs down, one up, and a whole lot of passion to go around.

Robert Levine, senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, told the Post that he “would have walked out halfway through” the film if he hadn’t agreed to sit in on the screening. “It hurt me as a Jew to watch it,” he said. “I don’t think any person of faith should put a dime in Gibson’s coffers.”

His sentiments were echoed by the scholar on the panel, Barnard College religion professor Elizabeth Castelli. “Jews are not fairly portrayed, especially the Jewish leadership,” she said. “Their portrayal is unhistorical and drew upon Medieval stereotypes — stereotypes that have a history of inspiring violence against Jews.”

Both Reverend Mark Hallinan of St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church and Post film critic Lou Lumenick ripped Gibson for not offering enough religious guidance for the less learned among potential viewers of “The Passion.”

“Unsophisticated people viewing the film will see Jews as cold, heartless people,” Hallinan warned.

“Unless Gibson provides some sort of historical context, he could well — as his detractors charge — be fueling antisemitic feelings among less sophisticated Christian audience members,” Lumenick agreed.

Indeed, their words of caution seemed to find support in the sentiments expressed by Joan Wilson, the lone reviewer to heap praise on “The Passion.” A Baptist production manager and director of volunteer gardeners at Carl Schurz Park on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side, Wilson rated it “a must-see movie” that conveyed the message that “there’s an ongoing battle between good and evil for our souls.… The film made me think more deeply about the importance of my soul and what an incredible sacrifice was made for it.”

An audience of five, of course, does not a box-office return make. Armchair theologians will have to wait for the film’s release next February 25 to pass verdict on the latest temptation with Christ. In the meantime, Gibson looks to be banished from Heaven to Hell — Hell’s Angels, that is. Entertainment Weekly reports that he is “trading his prayer shawl for a biker’s helmet; he’s just signed to play an ATF agent who infiltrates a motorcycle gang.”

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