Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Tom Cruise, John Travolta, this week's New York Times Magazine, and Mel Gibson's Dad

In the Eddie Murphy / Steve Martin movie Bowfinger, Eddie Murphy plays a temperamental Hollywood star named Kit Ramsey, who belongs to a ridiculously over the top Scientology like religious cult named "Mindhead". This organisation, apparently headed by a slumming but quite funny Terence Stamp, manages Kit Ramsey's career, and does its best to prevent himself from acting on those urges that would likely be damaging to his career (most notably, the desire to expose himself to the Laker girls).

In real life, however, the two most famous actor Scientologists in Hollywood are of course Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Both actors have tremendous star power. Both have starred in many hit movies. However, the theory that their careers are being in fact managed by the Scientologists is, I think, done a blow by the wildly different qualities of the management of their respective careers.

Tom Cruise's career is probably managed better than that of any other star in Hollywood. He is extraordinarily careful in his choice of material. He knows how to mix up potentially popular and more artistic movies so that his career always has the right amount of momentum. His chooses who he is going to work with excrutiatingly carefully. (His last ten films have been directed by Steven Spielberg, Cameron Crowe (twice), John Woo, P.T. Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, Neil Jordan, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner. There isn't a bad director in that lot, or even a hack. Several of them had done interesting independent work before working with Cruise and have become more famous subsequently). He promotes his films tirelessly, and is always generous in giving credit to the people he works with. Unlike some stars, he is not known for attempting to control the film on the set, but instead he chooses a good director and lets them get on with their work.

Now compare with John Travolta. Travolta was in the Saturday Night Fever and Grease in the 1970s, and was perhaps the biggest star in the world. Yet by the early 1980s, he was making unbelievable tosh and by the late 1980s he was virtual uncastable in leading roles. Then, he had the extraordinary good fortune to have Quentin Tarantino write him the role of his life in Pulp Fiction, and also be willing to fight to cast him in the movie. Suddeny he was back. Firstly, he had a few more hits (Get Shorty, Phenomenon, Face/Off). He even made one or two good movies. Then, however, his choices of material went into decline again. He hasn't really had any hits in the last two to three years, and he had the Battlefield Earth debacle.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was of course once a science fiction writer. There are various stories as to how Scientology started. The most famous involve stories about Hubbard stating to other writers that "The best way to make a fortune these days is to found a religiou" and then actually doing it. Hubbard was a pretty unreadable science fiction writer even before founding Scientology, and for several decades he gave it up. However, in 1981 he published Battlefield Earth, the first volume in a ten book series called Mission Earth that were published over the next six years. These books entered the bestseller lists, apparently because a large number of Scientologists were sent to bookshops to buy large number of copies. The books were apparently dreadful, and there have been various arguments as to whether Hubbard actually wrote them himself, although the general consensus seems to be that he did. In any event, though, scientologist John Travolta apparently insisted on getting a movie made based on the first book in the series, and eventually he managed to persuage a studio to pay for it. Having a star decide that they really want to make a particular vanity project is something that happens from time to time. Often stars do have enough influence to get such films made. Often the films in question turn into debacles. Battlefield Earth was one of these. It was perhaps the worst reviewed film of the decade, and did Travolta's career plenty of damage. Travolta is unlikely to get any other vanity projects made any time soon. (In whatever programming room he is presently living, he doesn't appear to realise this, however. He still occasionally talks about the possibility of making a sequel to Battlefield Earth, which is unlikely to happen.

That said, this is where Hollywood religious whackiness mixed up with movie star vanity can lead you: into the land of the debacle.

Actors' vanity projects that fail are one thing. Some would suggest that actors vanity projects that succeed are an even greater danger, because it leads actors to become evan more vain than they were already, and when you do this, you are getting close to upsetting the stability of the universe. In 1990 Kevin Costner managed to get Dances With Wolves made. The film ended up being a major box office hit, and won a large number of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner. (The latter Oscar, given to Costner instead of to Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas, was particularly ludicrous). What did this do? Well, it led Costner to believe that he was omniscient and infallable, and this led to his making Waterworld and ultimately The Postman.

In 1995, Mel Gibson's vanity Scottish nationalism film, Braveheart was made. It was not as big a hit as Dances With Wolves (although in my mind it was a better film) but like that film it went on to win Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Mel Gibson no doubt took heart from this.

Which was why it wasn't perhaps too surprising when it was announced that Mel Gibson would be directing The Passion, a biblical film telling the story of the crucifiction and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that it would be made in a mixture of Latin and Aramaic, without subtitles. Gibson appears to be paying the approximately $25 million budget of the film himself, which is unusual. (Big stars are paid $20 million per movie, but seldom pay for anything themselves).

Gibson is well known for being a devout Catholic, and as a consequence of this, his desire to tell a biblical story isn't especially surprising. The decision to make it in two dead languages without subtitles has a certain film star vanity whackiness about it. The success of Braveheart probably was one thing that encouraged him to do it.

When I heard that Gibson was doing this, it sounded probably like folly, but as a thought the result might at least be a little bit intriguing. (After all, there does exist a 1960s horror movie starring William Shatner that is entirely in Esperanto and is something of a minor cult classic. That one is normally shown with subtitles, however). As I suspect did , Christopher Noxon, the author of this article on Gibson in last Sunday's New York Times magazine. Noxon lives in Los Angeles, and noticed that a new church was being built near where he lives. Upon enquiring, he discovered that it was a traditionalist Catholic church being paid for by Mel Gibson. Traditionalist Catholics believe that the Second Vatican Council was a mistake, and that mass should still be in Latin, and that people shouldn't be eating meat on Fridays, amongst other things. In itself, this doesn't strike me as bad. I see nothing terribly wrong with Catholicism being a broad church, if you will excuse the expression. If some people want to listen to mass in Latin, that is fine with me.

I suspect this is approximately the point that Noxon concluded that all this, along with Gibson's film, was worthy of a magazine article, and pitched it to the editors at the Times magazine. However, when he started doing his research, things got weirder. Firstly, he went to a service at the church. The service was basically a standard Catholic service, but in Latin, except that at the end it did appear to call for the wickedness of the "modern church" to be punished on judgement day. From there, Noxon apparently discovered that Mel Gibson's father apparently shares Mel's traditionalist views. Mel has the occasional tendency to go in for conspiracies himself, for instance in an interview in 1995

''There's something to do with the Federal Reserve that Lincoln did, Kennedy did and Reagan tried,'' he said. ''I can't remember what it was. My dad told me about it. Everyone who did this particular thing that would have fixed the economy got undone. Anyway, I'll end up dead if I keep talking

That is deeply profound, obviously, but I have no idea how serious he was being. In any event, it all leads to his Dad, Hutton Gibson.

Oddly enough, I remember Hutton Gibson from Australian television in the early 1980s. At that point, quiz shows were a big deal on Australian television. Hutton Gibson appeared as a contestant (and was the champion for several weeks) on a show called "Ford Superquiz" in about 1983. In particular, I remember that on one episode the compere of the show mentioned that he was the father of Mel Gibson, and showed some photos from Mel's movies. (This was after Mad Max and Gallipoli but before Lethal Weapon, so Mel Gibson was a very big star in Australia, but still largely unknown in the rest of the world).

In any event, I now know from reading the New York Times that Hutton Gibson has been railing against the Vatican for 45 years, believes essentially that there was a coup in the Catholic church when John XXIII was elected in the 1950s and that all subsequent Popes were illegitimate, shadowy enemies apparently might have threatened ''to atom-bomb the Vatican City," and the Second Vatican Council was ''a Masonic plot backed by the Jews.''

Okay, at this point I can just imagine Noxon's reaction. He has started writing an article about Mel Gibson's vanity projects and slightly unconventional religious views. This wasn't intended to be all that serious, but something horrible has just crawled out from under a rock. It gets worse.

The intrigue got only murkier and more menacing from there. The next day after church, over a plate of roast beef at a buffet joint off the highway, conversation turned to the events of Sept. 11. Hutton flatly rejected that Al Qaeda hijackers had anything to do with the attacks. ''Anybody can put out a passenger list,'' he said.

So what happened? ''They were crashed by remote control,'' he replied.

He moved on to the Holocaust, dismissing historical accounts that six million Jews were exterminated. ''Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body,'' he said. ''It takes one liter of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, six million?''

The entire catastrophe was manufactured, said Hutton, as part of an arrangement between Hitler and ''financiers'' to move Jews out of Germany. Hitler ''had this deal where he was supposed to make it rough on them so they would all get out and migrate to Israel because they needed people there to fight the Arabs,'' he said.

Now this is just great. We have Mel Gibson, who doesn't believe that the Second Vatican Council, which amongst other things explicitely renounced the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, is a bad idea. We have Gibson making a film that will tell the "true story" (ie traditionalist view) about Christianity. We have a serious case of Holocaust denial in the family. (Admittedly we do not know what portion of his father's views are also held by Mel).

We have this not very reassuring reassurance.

Gibson was asked whether his account might particularly upset Jews. ''It may,'' he said. ''It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But when you look at the reasons why Christ came, why he was crucified -- he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind. So that, really, anyone who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.''

and, as James Russell points out, we now have Jewish leaders who are slightly worried about what may be in the film. The film might end up being completely inoffensive for all I know, but I see why they are worried.

Hollywood will tolerate a lot from people whose movies make money. Scientology does not seem to be a problem, but like everywhere else, lines do actually exist. It is possible to go too far. One interpretation of everything above is the Mel Gibson is about to go too far. I have always considered Gibson closer to Tom Cruise then John Travolta: he does normally appear to know what he is doing with his career. But this sounds like it could potentially be career suicide, and conceivably completely deserved career suicide. Certainly if he shares some of the views that his father clearly holds, then goodbye would be good riddance.

Erratum: My readers point out that Battlefield Earth is actually not part of the the Mission Earth series. My mistake. Sorry.

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