April 8, 2006
John Waters often credits the Catholic Church’s now-defunct Legion of Decency with steering him toward the sorts of movies that would shape his cinematic oeuvre. If, as a lad of 12, Baltimore’s favorite son hadn’t taken Francis Cardinal Spellman’s loud condemnation of “Baby Doll” as an invitation to calculate the wages of sin, who knows if he would have gone on to create such similarly corruptive works as “Mondo Trasho,” “Multiple Maniacs” and “Pink Flamingos.”
For Roman Catholics who came of age after the Bicentennial, the Legion of Decency has as much relevancy as meatless Fridays. For their parents and grandparents, however, it will be forever linked to the annual recitation of a pledge to refrain from selling their souls to the Great Satan in Hollywood.
Here’s how it went:
“I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.”
This was the church’s addendum to the Hollywood Production Code, which was implemented at approximately at the same time, and for precisely the same reasons. Three decades before MPAA president Jack Valenti introduced the ratings code to America’s parents and lawmakers, the Legion of Decency instituted a ratings system that went so far as to condemn films it considered especially heinous. In the case of Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll,” which actually passed the Production Code Administration’s litmus test, a mere condemnation wouldn’t suffice.
Neither, one assumes, would the organization have forgiven the creators of “The Da Vinci Code,” a best-selling book and potential hit movie that had the temerity to use one of Christianity’s basic tenets as the foundation for a thriller. Absent the Legion of Decency, however, the theological Taliban in Rome have launched a campaign to discredit something that most people recognized as fiction from the get-go.
It harkened me back to 1956, when Cardinal Spellman took the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to condemn “Baby Doll” as “evil in concept” and likely to “exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it.” He even went so far as to suggest that watching the movie might, in fact, qualify as a sin, which, of course, made it all the more appealing to all those little John Waters within earshot.
Last week, Warner Home Video released “Baby Doll” as both a stand-alone DVD and part of its six-disc “The Tennessee Williams Collection.” Even though it was released theatrically before the introduction of the MPAA ratings, WHV sent it out “R.” That distinction also stretches credulity, considering “Baby Doll” is no rougher than 99 percent of all films currently assigned a PG-13. In fact, it’s something of a hoot.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting, which supplanted the Legion of Decency, has done away with the “C” and “A-IV” ratings, in favor of “L.” It signifies that a film is intended for a “limited adult audience … (and pertains to) films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.” A condo in hell no longer comes with a flaunting of the organization’s recommendation.
Today, the only folks who might find “Baby Doll” troubling are those offended by hearing “wop” repeated by the film’s peckerwood protagonists. It’s also possible that some rednecks and white supremacists might object to several hilarious scenes in which the “colored” help makes fun of the cuckolded husband (Karl Malden) of a 19-year-old virgin wife (Carroll Baker).
The “wop” in question, a Sicilian businessman who owns the Mississippi town’s other cotton gin, is played with great flair by a very young and handsome Eli Wallach. After his oily Silva Vaccaro discovers the deep, dark secret in the marriage of Archie Lee and Baby Doll Meighan, he uses it to drive his nemesis insane.
Today, of course, worse things happen every night on television, and no one uses racial slurs to drive their point home. Baby Doll’s then-scandalous attire – an opaque white slip – wouldn’t pass the muster of the flesh-bot fashionistas on “The OC.”
Nonetheless, any collaboration between Williams and Kazan is worthy of attention, even as period camp. Kazan’s adaptation of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” also included in the box set, avoided condemnation from the Legion of Decency only after four minutes of since-restored footage was excised.
A half-century later, the dictates of the Legion of Decency seem prehistoric. In its time, though, they influenced the ticket-buying habits of millions of parishioners. Even if a questionable title won the stamp of approval from the Production Code Administration – and, in a few cases, Oscar nominations – the church could lobby officials of cities with large Catholic populations, many of which had their own review boards.
Fearing financial retribution, the major studios routinely agreed to make the recommended trims and kept close watch on the extracurricular activities of its contract stars. In other cases, studios would push back release dates, hoping for a change in the cultural climate.
The practice continues today, under different auspices. Because mall owners prohibit NC-17 films from being exhibited in theaters attached to their properties — and advertising can be refused by newspapers and television outlets — producers of borderline titles are forced to decide between self-censorship and limited distribution.
The Legion of Decency’s demise, in the early ’70s, went unlamented by Catholics who didn’t believe they should be sentenced to an eternity in hell simply for watching “The Last Picture Show” or “Last Tango in Paris.” The watchdogs at the Conference of Catholic Bishops (http://www.usccb.org/movies/movieall.shtml) are far less censorious, and, in fact, tend to offer cogent opinions on movies and DVDs, TV shows and theatrical productions, with concise explanations of perceived problems.
Coincidentally, perhaps, last week’s mail also brought a review copy of the Criterion Collection edition of Luis Bunuel’s “Viridiana.” Released here in 1962, it had the distinction of being condemned not only by the Legion of Decency and Vatican, but also banned from distribution in the director’s Spanish homeland.
Bunuel, whose attacks on the Catholic Church were the stuff of legend, had been living in self-imposed exile for years when he was asked by Francisco Franco to return to Spain to direct a film. That film was “Viridiana,” and, no, the generalissimo couldn’t take the joke. Even though it would win the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, the “blasphemous” drama wouldn’t be shown in Spain until two years after the dictator’s death, in 1975.
In it, a novice nun (Silvia Pinal) is asked by her rich and devious uncle (Fernando Rey) to return home before she takes her vows and attend to a family tragedy. While there, Don Jaime tests Viridiana’s virtue and religious beliefs in increasingly outrageous ways. Even after he commits suicide, Viridiana finds it impossible to avoid the tests of faith he laid in her path. The last straw was Bunuel’s famous staging of a tableau vivant of “The Last Supper,” with beggars and physically impaired vagrants posing as Jesus Christ and his disciples.
This isn’t to imply that the Vatican’s only reaction to controversial movies is strictly negative. After Mel Gibson famously solicited the approval of Pope John Paul for “The Passion of the Christ,” Vatican apparatchiks stumbled over themselves trying to persuade reporters that this increasingly brittle and wizened holy man not only sat through the 2-hour-plus dram, but had also managed to declare, “It is as it was.”
The film would become a huge success, of course, with Christians of all stripes beating a path to the local megaplex. Today, the review available on the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website recommends the film only to adult audiences, and cites as many pros as cons in its critique. Its critics certainly didn’t take “It is as it was” – no matter who said it first – as the final words on the subject.
Also available there is the “Vatican Top 45 List,” which was compiled in 1995 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the cinematic art. The list of “great films” is divided into three categories: Religion, Values, Art. And, compared to some I’ve seen, it ain’t bad.
Now, in the run-up to the release of “The Da Vinci Code,” important members of the Vatican inner-circle are speaking out against Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel – repeat, novel — of the same title. It remains unclear if any of them had actually read the book, or seen a pirated disc of the movies, before calling for the heads of their authors. It’s likely that Roman Catholics purchased at least a few dozen of the 40 million books in circulation, and a mass migration from the church has yet to materialize.
Even so, Reuters reported on Sunday that Cardinal Francis Arinze, once considered a leading candidate for the top job at the Vatican, urged Christians to respond to the book and film with legal action, because “both offend Christ and the Church he founded.” The comments apparently were made in a documentary called “The Da Vinci Code: A Masterful Deception.”
This came 10 days after another Vatican-based cardinal called for a boycott of the film.
“Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget,” Arinze was reported as saying in Mario Biasetti’s film. “Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical. So it is not I who will tell all Christians what to do but some known legal means, which can be taken in order to get the other person to respect the rights of others. …
“Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us. There are some other religions, which, if you insult their founder, they will not be just talking … they will make it painfully clear to you.”
Whoa, Nelly … those sound like fightin’ words to me.
Reuters wasn’t able to ask the bishop if, by this, he meant Catholics should take to the streets, as did Muslims incensed over cartoons published in the western press of the Prophet Mohammad. Neither was he asked how he felt about Malaysia’s decision, first, to ban “The Passion of the Christ,” but, later, restrict its viewing to Christians; or about the banning of “Ben-Hur,” in China, 40 years ago, for containing “propaganda of superstitious beliefs, namely Christianity”; or the banning of “The Message” in several Middle Eastern countries because religious leaders didn’t cotton to the idea of having the Prophet Mohammed’s story told in a motion picture.
In the case of “The Message,” which, contrary to rumor, didn’t use actors to portray Mohammed or his wives and children, Americans distributors panicked after a group of Hunafi Muslims – African-American converts to Islam — stormed the Washington headquarters of B’nai Brith, taking several dozen people hostage. One of the group’s demands was the banning of “The Message,” which, its members incorrectly assumed, was financed by Hollywood, which, as everyone knows, is controlled by Jews. It finally was released in DVD last year, with no Blockbusters being lost to arson, as theater owners were led to fear in 1976.
At the time, Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian Muslim who directed and produced “The Message,” faced serious threats against his life. He managed to live long enough to be killed in the terrorist bombing, last year, of a hotel in Amman, Jordan.
Is this sort of action Cardinal Arinze might endorse, if legal measures fail … as they must, at least in America? Let’s give him the benefit of a doubt and say, probably not.
The fact is, American Catholics have accepted the fact that their faith is under constant assault by forces outside and within the church, be they novelists or pedophile priests. Mystery and mysticism are as much a part of the Catholic experience as were the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, until someone in Rome woke up one morning and changed his mind about their value in the pursuit of godliness. The current pontiff even has voiced his willingness to consider, at least, the benefits of condoms in the fight against AIDS.
By comparison, a fantasy about an albino hitmen is in the employ of Opus Dei is small potatoes. It’s not as if the distant seed of Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s clandestine marriage was planning on announcing his engagement to one of the Hilton sisters any time soon.
How could the church have existed for nearly 2,000 years without a healthy dollop of mystery and intrigue? For starters, there’s the virgin birth, which has been questioned by every Catholic schoolchild with a half brain for two millennia. You either buy into it, or you don’t, and the vast majority of sheep born into the flock clearly have suspended their disbelief long enough for a foundation of faith to be constructed underneath it. One might also ask what are all those gargoyles are doing on the walls of the great cathedrals of Europe, or why the bones of saints and martyrs are put on display for the benefit of worshippers and tourists. And, how is it that miracles are demanded of those dearly departed men and women whose deeds on Earth qualify them for beatification and sainthood?
The Gospels read like murder mysteries – call it Christian noir — in that they’re populated by all manner of good guys and bad guys, victims and perpetrators … why not a sexy and sexy dame, like Mary Magdalene? Forget the “Mona Lisa,” if word were to leak out that Jesus Christ had invested a couple of his “missing years” into the pursuit of marriage, it would mean that the 2,000-year-old tradition of priestly celibacy was nothing more than an unnecessary conceit.
“The Da Vinci Code” and the book that inspired it, “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” have repeatedly been debunked as faux history, as recently as last week, in a “60 Minutes” segment. No one has been able to deny either book’s worthiness as mass-market entertainment, however. When it comes to killing time on airplanes or on the beach, “The Da Vinci Code” is pretty tough to beat.
Even so, Catholics are entitled to defend their faith and explain its mysteries and history in any way they so choose, as long as their pronouncements don’t drag the faithful into another pointless Crusade. Far short of any worse-case scenario, though, savvy priests and bishops already are preparing sermons and discussion groups to counter what is depicted in Ron Howard’s movie.
There’s also a website (http://www.jesusdecoded.com) devoted to the church’s side of the discussion. It arrives a bit late in the game, perhaps, but its existence acknowledges, at least, that condemning someone for going to see a movie is likely to prove counterproductive in the 21st Century.
“Reporters have asked whether even a best-selling novel can seriously damage a Church of one billion believers,” comments Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, a priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. “No, in the long run, it can not …but that is not the point. The pastoral concern of the Church is for each and every person.
“If only one person were to come away with a distorted impression of Jesus Christ or His Church, our concern is for that person as if he or she were the whole world.”
Forgetting for a few seconds how this same quote might resonate with the victims of abuse at the hands of perverted clergy, especially considering the ensuing cover-ups and hushed settlements, it might behoove the Vatican to avoid that particular argument. Better to treat the movie as yet another fleeting pop-cultural craze, and resist the temptation to provide Sony with any more free publicity.
Unless the secrets buried in the Vatican vault are revealed in a pay-per-view television special – or the Blessed Descendant becomes a contestant on “American Idol” – this, too, will pass … two weeks after the release of “The Da Vinci Code: Special Collector’s Edition.” Forty years down the road, perhaps, copies of the DVD will sit side-by-side with copies of “Baby Doll” and “Viridiana” as artifacts of a period in history when films were blacklisted along with artists and their imaginations. — G.D.