Hollywood Under Siege

Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars

Thomas R. Lindlof
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jctq4
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Hollywood Under Siege
    Book Description:

    In 1988, director Martin Scorsese fulfilled his lifelong dream of making a film about Jesus Christ. Rather than celebrating the film as a statement of faith, churches and religious leaders immediately went on the attack, alleging blasphemy. At the height of the controversy, thousands of phone calls a day flooded the Universal switchboard, and before the year was out, more than three million mailings protesting the film fanned out across the country. For the first time in history, a studio took responsibility for protecting theaters and scrambled to recruit a "field crisis team" to guide The Last Temptation of Christ through its contentious American openings. Overseas, the film faced widespread censorship actions, with thirteen countries eventually banning the film. The response in Europe turned violent when opposition groups sacked theaters in France and Greece and caused injuries to dozens of moviegoers. Twenty years later, author Thomas R. Lindlof offers a comprehensive account of how this provocative film came to be made and how Universal Pictures and its parent company MCA became targets of the most intense, unremitting attacks ever mounted against a media company. The film faced early and determined opposition from elements of the religious Right when it was being developed at Paramount during the last year the studio was run by the celebrated troika of Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. By the mid-1980s, Scorsese's film was widely regarded as unmakeable -- a political stick of dynamite that no one dared touch. Through the joint efforts of two of the era's most influential executives, CAA president Michael Ovitz and Universal Pictures chairman Thomas P. Pollock, this improbable project found its way into production. The making of The Last Temptation of Christ caught evangelical Christians at a moment when they were suffering a crisis of confidence in their leadership. The religious right seized on the film as a way to rehabilitate its image and to mobilize ordinary citizens to attack liberalism in art and culture. The ensuing controversy over the film's alleged blasphemy escalated into a full-scale war fought out very openly in the media. Universal/MCA faced unprecedented calls for boycotts of its business interests, anti-Semitic rhetoric and death threats were directed at MCA chairman Lew Wasserman and other MCA executives, and the industry faced the specter of violence at theaters. Hollywood Under Siege draws upon interviews with many of the key figures -- Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jack Valenti, Thomas P. Pollock, and Willem Dafoe -- to explore the trajectory of the film from its conception to the subsequent epic controversy and beyond. Lindlof offers a fascinating dissection of a critical episode in the embryonic culture wars, illuminating the explosive effects of the clash between the interests of the media industry and the forces of social conservatism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7316-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-14)

    August 11, 1988—Universal City, California

    The news conference was winding down. The last speaker, a Southern Baptist pastor from Atlanta, leaned into the microphones sprouting from the top of the podium, ready to give his peroration to the noonday crowd gathered at the entrance to the Universal Studios Tour. He held up a petition clipped from theAtlanta Journal.“We have called Universal time and again. We have contacted their offices. The last conversation, last Friday, what they told us was this: ‘We don’t care about your petitions. Bring them and dump them with the guards, and we’ll put...

  5. 1 Dying Dangerously
    (pp. 15-44)

    For almost as long as Christianity has existed, authors have retold the life of Jesus Christ. The vast majority of these plays, poems, stories, and novels are unabashedly devotional. Their purpose, wrote Theodore Ziolkowski inFictional Transfigurations of Jesus,“is to produce a Poor Man’s Jesus, as it were, a Gospel reduced to the lowest common denominator of the times and put into terms that require no effort of the imagination.”¹ Making far greater demands on readers’ imaginations are works that conjure entirely new mythologies of his life. The impulse to say something daringly original about the Christ figure has...

  6. 2 Paramount
    (pp. 45-82)

    In may 1982 Paramount Pictures announced that it was promoting a thirty-one-year-old production executive to the post of president of worldwide production. With the abrupt departure of Don Simpson from the position, the studio president, Michael Eisner, decided that he had to fill it with someone whose efficiency, aggressiveness, and implacable dedication to controlling production costs matched his own.

    If anything, Jeffrey Katzenberg exceeded that rigorous standard. In the seven years since he was hired as an assistant to Paramount’s chairman, Barry Diller, Katzenberg had demonstrated that he would work as many hours as it took and clear any obstacle...

  7. 3 Universal
    (pp. 83-108)

    The trick was to survive,” Martin Scorsese said of the situation he faced in January 1984.¹ Two of his last three films had failed to turn a profit—the latest,The King of Comedy,generated only $2.5 million in domestic gross receipts²—and withThe Last Temptation of Christcanceled, his future as a director seemed to be at the point of hemorrhaging. The last time he’d felt under threat of losing it all, in the late 1970s, after his experimental musicalNew York, New Yorkstumbled at the box office, he’d reacted by making his most aggressive film ever....

  8. 4 Morocco
    (pp. 109-126)

    Willem dafoe was in Northampton, Massachusetts, working on the playWrong Guyswith the Wooster Group, when his CAA agent got him on the phone. Marty Scorsese wants to talk to you, he said. He’s doing a film of this Kazantzakis novel. The actor asked what Scorsese wanted him for and what the role was. “Well, actually, Jesus,” said the agent.¹

    Through most of the summer of 1987 Scorsese waited on Aidan Quinn to say whether he would return to play Jesus, but Quinn was in the throes of makingRobinson Crusoein the Seychelles Islands, an ordeal that left...

  9. 5 Fevers Under the Veil
    (pp. 127-159)

    As 1987 drew to a close, and a presidential election year loomed on the horizon, evangelical Christians were in a dispirited mood. Seven years earlier, Ronald Reagan had been elected to the presidency with their overwhelming support. Although Reagan himself had no “born again” experience, his sunny optimism and the conservative values he espoused had won them over. The newly ascendent Christian right—personified by the televangelists Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Paul Robison, but also powered behind the scenes by Paul Weyrich, Beverly LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, and other movement activists—had gotten behind Reagan’s campaign and helped him achieve...

  10. 6 Summer of the Locust
    (pp. 160-186)

    The summer of 1988 was shaping up as the hottest in years. Earlier that spring, meteorologists saw a high-pressure dome of hot, dry air settle over the Plains, which disrupted the flow of the jet stream, responsible for bringing moisture and variable temperatures to the continent’s midsection. Unlike normal weather patterns, the system didn’t move. By the third week of June, temperatures in the Midwest were topping a hundred degrees, and much of the nation plunged into a severe drought, one of the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.¹

    In politics, Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis swept the...

  11. 7 Teeth Bared, Knuckles White
    (pp. 187-218)

    In the week following James Dobson’sFocus on the Familybroadcast, the escalating war of words between Universal and an ad hoc coalition of evangelical Christians dominated the news aboutThe Last Temptation of Christ.Where one side considered the movie a slander on Christ’s character, the other side called it an affirmation of faith; where one found evidence of betrayal, the other said that its intentions were honorable; where one was determined to do everything in its power to keep the film out of theaters, the other vowed to release it. Despite these profound—and probably irreconcilable—differences, both...

  12. 8 The Big Wind-Up
    (pp. 219-249)

    At 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 3, Martin Scorsese delivered the final cut ofThe Last Temptation of Christto Universal Pictures. Later that day he told Aljean Harmetz of theNew York Timesabout feeling “a sense of loss and at the same time a sense of exhilaration. I anticipated opposition to the film, but not the flavor of the antagonism, not the anti-Semitism.”¹

    The next morning, Universal announced that it had received Scorsese’s film and would releaseLast Temptationin “select theaters in [the] U.S. and Canada” in seven days:

    Few motion pictures in recent memory have generated...

  13. 9 Trouble in Flyover Country
    (pp. 250-285)

    It may have been the best opening weekend conditions that could have been devised forThe Last Temptation of Christ.By premiering the picture in the nation’s media centers—New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—and the cosmopolitan Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto, Universal was hopingLast Temptationwould attract enthusiastic audiences and win the praise of influential critics. The film was also set to open in four of the most politically liberal urban markets in the United States, all with relatively low percentages of evangelical Christians: Washington, D.C., Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. Even with these home-field advantages,...

  14. 10 Scorched Earth Blues
    (pp. 286-305)

    At a july 29, 1988, press conference at Venice’s Hotel de Ville, the director of the Venice Film Festival, Guglielmo Biraghi, announced thatThe Last Temptation of Christhad been selected for an out-of-competition slot on the evening of September 7. BringingLast Temptationto Venice was a coup for Biraghi since it guaranteed enormous publicity for a festival that often played in the shadow of Cannes. Martin Scorsese himself thought the venue was the right one for the film’s international debut. “I felt that the iconography of the film, the look of the film, have very strong ties to...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 306-318)

    The week thatThe Last Temptation of Christopened, Paul Schrader visited Martin Scorsese’s office, just around the corner from his own office. He found the director in an agitated state. “Marty was bitching and moaning about all of this controversy. And I said, ‘Marty, we wanted to make a controversial film. We have nowmadea controversial film.’ He said, ‘I know, I know, but I didn’t think it would bethiscontroversial.’ ”¹

    Controversies rarely go according to plan—if thereisa plan. Unfortunately for Martin Scorsese, theLast Temptationfuror only rarely touched on the spiritual...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 319-374)
  17. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 375-380)
  18. Author Interviews
    (pp. 381-382)
  19. Index
    (pp. 383-394)