Hollywood, Old and
March 11, 2004
Hollywood today is
notoriously anti-Christian and
anti-Catholic, so much so that its current lords are vowing revenge on Mel
Gibson for his colossal insolence in making a film about the Crucifixion
without the conventional blasphemies. Worse yet, its a hit.
But this isnt the Old
Hollywood. The Old Hollywood is part of the reason Im a Catholic
When I was a boy, Hollywood,
though dominated by Jews, treated Christianity with reverence and
endowed Catholicism with a special charm and glamour. Part of the
reason, of course, was commercial: America was chiefly Protestant, but
with a large and growing Catholic population. Both kinds of Christians
loved films about their religion, and they insisted that it be treated with
The Old Hollywood was glad to
oblige. If the profit motive dictated piety, well, good for the profit
motive. Today it dictates far worse things. Yet Gibson, who risked his own
fortune to make The Passion of the Christ, has shown that
piety can still make money. This will no doubt produce a crisis of
conscience in the New Hollywood.
In the Old Hollywood, many of the
stars were Catholics: James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Frank
Sinatra, Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, and the popular director Frank Capra.
Their devoutness varied, and many of them led irregular personal lives;
but in their public conduct they usually honored religious norms. Setting a
good example for children was an obligation everyone accepted. Humphrey
Bogart might have a Scotch with his cigarette on the screen, but he
watched his language.
That was a blessing for children
like me. My parents were both lapsed Catholics, and I always joke that I
was raised a lapsed Catholic; I wasnt even baptized. But many of
my relatives, friends, and neighbors were devout Catholics, and I always
felt I was missing something. When my mother complained about her
girlhood in a Catholic school, I secretly longed for the very experience she
remembered with what seemed to me undue resentment.
a word, Catholicism came to seem cool. To a teenager, that meant a lot. When John
Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his religion was, for me, part of his
appeal. Very superficial, of course, but superficial things matter. That
was why we put such stress on setting a good example. Even we big
brothers were expected to set a good example for our little brothers.
I earnestly studied the
catechism and in 1961 was baptized. The priests I knew went far beyond
setting a good example; they always found time to answer my countless
questions with patience, charity, and clarity. Catholicism became more
than cool for me; it was a great system of truths,
harmonies, and mysteries, all centered on the supreme holiness of Christ,
our ultimate good example.
Nobody suspected that within a
decade, almost immediately after the Second Vatican Council,
sympathy for the devil would come to seem cool, and the
bishops of the Catholic Church would abandon their mission so far as to
allow homosexuals to dominate the seminaries. The Protestant churches
and the New Hollywood would follow suit, not only forsaking but attacking
the old standards. Its hard to say which caused what, but the
collapse of Catholic leadership was surely a key reason for
Americas moral disorientation.
Catholicism ceased to exert a
gravitational pull on popular culture, and even on other forms of Christian
piety; the rest was inevitable. The New Hollywood felt it had nothing to
fear from Catholic criticism, which had become nugatory.
Gibsons film is often
attacked for seeming to revert to pre-Vatican II Catholicism. But in a
way, it also marks a reversion to the Old Hollywood, while ironically
exploiting the violence licensed by the New Hollywood for purposes the
new moguls detest.
Martin Scorsese has already
given us the New Hollywoods Christ, not even a good example for
kids, which would have been impossible before Vatican II. But the Old
Hollywoods image of Christianity was always sentimental and
treacly, so Gibson has given us an image both pious and unflinching. The
partisans of the New Hollywood dont know how to categorize it
except in the crude psychosexual terms of sadism and
Neither term fits, of course, but
somehow people who dont believe in Christ still devoutly believe
in Freud, one of the last centurys quack messiahs.