November 18, 1999
When the much-anticipated film "Dogma" hit the theaters last week, whatever positive buzz the picture had received was drowned out by the controversy relating to the movie's depiction of Catholicism and the faiths of "Dogma's" producers, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and its writer/director, Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith is best known for his award-winning films "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy." Both of these movies were distributed with care by art film powerhouse Miramax Films, who last year nurtured "Shakespeare In Love" to an upset Oscar® win for Best Picture. It only seemed natural that Miramax would distribute Smith's most recent effort, "Dogma."
However, a first draft of the script illegally made its way onto the Internet and into the hands of William Donohue of the Catholic League. Upon reading dialogue about Joseph and Mary's sex life and a portrayal of a descendent of Jesus employed by an abortion clinic, Donohue, without having seen the film, launched an all-out assault against "Dogma."
What is most troubling about this brouhaha is the often-inflammatory rhetoric of "Dogma's" opponents, which has done more to divide two great religions than to unite individuals of faith. Instead of focusing exclusively on the allegedly blasphemous portions of the film, Donohue has suggested that Hollywood applies a double standard to the Jewish and Catholic religions. "If Jews can complain about Palestinian sympathizer Vanessa Redgrave in movies playing Jews, we can complain against [Dogma]," he said. In a recent editorial, professor Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University claimed that "if Hollywood routinely portrayed Orthodox rabbis as sordid agents of Israel, editorial pages across the nation would launch cruise missiles at the offenders."
Posted on the official "Dogma" website, one piece of hate mail exclaimed, "if you attacked the Jewish religion -- Reform or Orthodox -- in the same manner, our Jewish friends would have you sued beyond compare." That Jews or the Jewish religion may or may not be depicted by Hollywood in a profane manner should be irrelevant to the question of whether "Dogma's" alleged heretical treatment of Catholicism crosses the line.
"Dogma" is a satirical work starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who play two angels stuck on earth for defying God and are trying to make their way back to heaven by concocting an irreverent scheme to become eligible for entrance into the pearly gates. A practicing Catholic himself, Smith sees his movie as nothing less than "a recruitment film for the Catholic Church."
The battle between the Catholic Church and Hollywood actually traces its recent history back to the 1988 Universal Pictures release of "The Last Temptation of Christ." This war escalated even further when the Catholic League formally targeted the entire Walt Disney empire in 1995 with a boycott when its subsidiary, Miramax Films, released "Priest," a film depicting a Catholic cleric as homosexual. In 1997, the League mounted another protest against Disney and its ABC network over "Nothing Sacred," a television series about an urban Catholic parish. With the "Priest" and "Nothing Sacred" attacks, the Catholic League enjoyed little success.
This time around, the Catholic League's actions apparently paid off. In April, Disney reportedly instructed Miramax to dump "Dogma." As a result, the Weinstein brothers put up millions of dollars of their own money to buy the rights to the picture. Ultimately, the Weinsteins were able to find another distributor. Lions Gate Films acquired domestic distribution rights from the Weinstein brothers in September.
To some extent, however, the producers and the protesters feed off such controversy. The producers stand behind their film, the protesters attack it, and everyone gets free press. The film's box office gets a boost -- with the public yearning to see what caused such a big stir. The dissenters can claim that despite the box office bump, they have been pure to their principles and, along the way, they can pick up a few contributions. So everybody wins, right?
Wrong. Movies open and close every week, but divisive rhetoric by religious leaders have a longer half-life. In this instance, the charges of a double standard were followed by anonymous death threats against the Weinsteins based solely on their religion. The content of one of the many death threats, leaked to CNN by the Weinsteins, is particularly horrifying. "You Jews better take that money you've been stealing from us and invest in flak jackets because we're coming in there with shotguns."
For "Dogma" and all future controversial films, producers and protesters need only look to Brooklyn for a model of how to do it right. Last month, the Catholic League attacked the Brooklyn Museum of Art for mounting an exhibit featuring a portrait of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. At one protest led by Donohue, a heckler yelled out what soon became the mantra for many of the protesters. "It's all the Jews who run the museum." Donohue stopped his speech and told the man to "go home."
After this rally, Donohue and his archrival in the Brooklyn Museum debate, Norm Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, led a unity press conference. Donohue joined hands with Siegel to denounce "the bigotry which surrounded this controversy." Donohue got it right when he pondered, "instead of addressing the question 'should there be public funding for this [exhibit],' what we get are anti-Semitic statements because Norm is Jewish or the anti-Catholic statements because I am Catholic."
Dohonue and "Dogma's" other opponents got it wrong when they offered divisive and inflammatory oratory about Hollywood's purported disparate treatment of Jews and Catholics to make their case against the film. Never did they criticize the ridicule lodged at Jews during the picture for killing Jesus Christ, an historical inaccuracy that has formed the root of much of the anti-Semitism swirling around this country for years. Rather, they pit one religion against another to further the goals of their cause. If unity worked in Brooklyn, why not Hollywood?
Entertainment lawyer Brad Pomerance is a correspondent for "Larry Mantel's Airtalk" on KPCC.