The real story behind why Universal Pictures promoted a blasphemous movie.

On the morning of August 11, 1988, more than 25,000 people gathered at Universal City, California, in the largest protest ever mounted against the release of a motion picture. The huge crowd assembled from every direction, filling all streets and sidewalks surrounding the legendary “Black Tower” that housed the corporate command center of the vast conglomerate, MCA/Universal. The demonstrators carried hand-lettered signs proclaiming “Please Show Respect for My God,” “The Lie Costs $6.50; the Truth Is Free,” and “Father, Forgive Them.”

An acquaintance who worked at Universal at the time recalled the nervousness that prevailed through the day inside the company’s main office building. “That was one time it was really scary to be in the Black Tower,” she said. “There were just so many of them! When you looked down, 15 stories down, they were everywhere. We felt like we were trapped. My boss kept expecting them to charge. He thought they were going to try to kill people. Everybody was expecting a fight.”

The huge throng failed to live up to these dramatic expectations. Despite the feeling of hurt and rage that many of the demonstrators expressed to members of the press, the police reported no incidents of either violence or vandalism. The protesters assembled in order to show their passionate opposition to the next day’s scheduled release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, not to exact vengeance from the studio that produced it. They sang a few hymns, cheered lustily for more than a dozen occasionally emotional speakers, and then peaceably dispersed. By midafternoon, the terrified honchos in the Black Tower breathed a collective sigh of relief and returned to their business—without making any serious attempt to come to terms with the significance of what had just occurred outside their windows.

The movie moguls, together with many of the supporters in the news media, persisted in dismissing the demonstrators as representatives of a lunatic fringe of religious fanatics and right-wing extremists. In one typical piece of commentary, columnist Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press decried those who criticized the film as a “know-nothing wacky pack,” “sour, fun-loathing people,” and “the American ignoramus faction that is perpetually geeked up on self-righteous bile.”

In point of fact, the “know-nothing wacky pack” that protested the movie included such “fringe groups” as the National Council of Catholic Bishops, the National Catholic Conference, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Eastern Orthodox Church of America, the Archbishop of Canterbury (head of the worldwide Anglican Church), 20 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (who cosponsored a bipartisan resolution condemning the film), and the Christian Democratic Party of Italy (that nation’s largest political party). Even Mother Teresa sent a particularly passionate “message to America” that was read to the demonstrators, in which she called on all people of good will to use “prayer as the ultimate weapon to fight this ultimate disgrace.”

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In fact, all of those who addressed the enormous crowd spoke in temperate tones that gave scant indication they had been “geeked up on self-righteous bile.”

One of Hollywood’s own received an especially warm response—Ken Wales, former vice-president at Disney studios and veteran producer of more than 20 feature films. “As a member of this industry, I wish that there were hundreds of stars and writers and directors standing here with me,” Wales pleaded. “I suppose they are out protesting toxic waste! Let me tell you, there is toxic waste in other areas besides our rivers. That happens in the pollution of our minds, our souls, and our spirits!”


The executives at Universal remained remarkably insensitive to the protest. Their public statements contained not the slightest hint of conciliation or apology. Instead, the studio brass incongruously invoked the First Amendment and struck a series of self-serving poses that seemed to suggest that this for-profit corporation felt a solemn and selfless duty to promote a film that tens of millions of its potential patrons found offensive.

“Though those in power may justify the burning of books at the time, the witness of history teaches the importance of standing up for freedom of conscience,” declared a full-page “open letter” from Universal Pictures published in newspapers around the country. “In the United States, no one sect or coalition has the power to set boundaries around each person’s freedom to explore religious and philosophical questions.”

This tendentious civics lesson made no attempt to explain why the conglomerate’s principled defense of the Constitution required it to finance, promote, and distribute certain religious and philosophical explorations, but not others. Hadn’t the company somehow breached its commitment of “standing up for freedom of conscience” by passing up the opportunity to produce a film version of Salman Rushdie’s best-selling novel, The Satanic Verses—a book that offered a revisionist view of Muhammad in some ways comparable to Scorsese’s revisionist portrayal of Christ? When it came to the prospect of enraging Muslims, the instinct for self-preservation took precedence over the commitment to controversial religious explorations.

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Ultimately, all the major Hollywood studios offered formal support for this callous attitude and endorsed Universal’s position on the film. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, issued a statement in which he ringingly declared: “The key issue, the only issue, is whether or not self-appointed groups can prevent a film from being exhibited to the public.… The major companies of MPAA support MCA/Universal in its absolute right to offer to the people whatever movie it chooses.”

No one ever challenged that “absolute right.” Universal’s critics merely questioned the way the studio elected to exercise it. The dispute concerned the movie company’s choices, not its rights. To assert that a studio has the right to release “whatever movie it chooses” is not to insist that every possible release is equally defensible.

Would Mr. Valenti have spoken out in behalf of a film biography of Malcolm X that portrayed him as a paid agent of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI who secretly worked to discredit the civil-rights movement? What about a movie version of the life of the assassinated gay hero, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, that suggested that he was actually a closet heterosexual (an inveterate womanizer) who only pretended to be gay in order to seek political advantage? Or a revisionist view of Holocaust victim Anne Frank that portrayed her as an out-of-control teenage nymphomaniac who risked capture by the Nazis night after night to satisfy her raging hormones?

It is difficult to imagine the industry’s leaders rallying to the support of any such outrageous and patently offensive projects in the way they rallied to the support of Last Temptation. For Hollywood, in other words, some martyrs are more sacrosanct than others.

In fact, the industry’s stubborn and purportedly principled defense of Universal’s right to offend a significant segment of the public with the Martin Scorsese film stands in striking contrast to the deference displayed to a wide range of “politically correct” special-interest groups, both before and after the Last Temptation controversy. For instance:

• In 1990, animal-rights activists demanded that Disney studios eliminate what a spokesman for the Humane Society described as “an antiwolf statement” in the film adaptation of Jack London’s novella White Fang. The producers agreed to remove a dramatic scene in which a wolf attacks a man and even added a disclaimer to the film that stated that “there is no documented case in North America of a healthy wolf or pack of wolves attacking a human.”

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• In 1991, screenwriter and independent producer Jonathan F. Lawton altered the story line in his script Red Sneakers under pressure from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD). His original concept involved a heroine who leaves her older female lover for a man—a plot that allegedly affronted lesbian sensibilities. In the revised (and, according to GLAAD, “much improved”) version, the main character views the older woman more as a mother figure than as a lover, and that older woman is also provided a happy romance with another lesbian.

• In another, well-publicized incident, the religious leaders in one Hopi Indian village reviewed the script for Robert Redford’s forthcoming film Dark Wind and reached the conclusion that the screenplay portrayed their ancient rights in a “sacrilegious” manner. Producer Patrick Markey promptly agreed to make changes.

The sensitivity that Hollywood flaunted during these and many similar episodes makes the industry’s stonewalling during the Last Temptation controversy even more difficult to understand. The prospect of being labeled “antiwolf” produced greater worry than the prospect of being labeled “anti-Christ.”


Much of the press coverage of the increasingly bitter dispute also seemed highly discriminatory. Television news repeatedly misrepresented the nature of the national movement opposing the movie’s release by focusing on one utterly unrepresentative individual as the preeminent symbol of that movement: the Reverend R. L. Hymers, pastor of an obscure church in downtown Los Angeles. With his snarling, moon face and explosive temper, his predictions of impending apocalypse (through earthquakes and “killer bees”), his blatantly anti-Semitic ravings against the “Jewish money” behind the movie, and a long history of legal problems stemming from past violent outbursts, Hymers lived up to anyone’s worst nightmare of deranged religious fanatic. Naturally, the press couldn’t get enough of him.

The mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders who coordinated the major efforts against Last Temptation not only disowned Hymers, they publicly denounced him. They pointed out that he represented no significant constituency and spoke only for his own struggling, 250-member Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle. Nevertheless, Hymers appeared on literally hundreds of TV interviews and talk shows, as well as graced the pages of Time, Newsweek, and People, while respected Christian leaders, like pastors Jack Hayford and Lloyd Ogilvie (whose congregations each boasted more than 20 times the membership of Hymers’s), were virtually ignored. When Hymers and less than 100 of his followers staged a “mock crucifixion” on the sidewalk in front of the home of Universal president Lew Wasserman, he received more television coverage than the subsequent demonstration at the Black Tower.

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The media not only misled the public about the leaders of the protest but also distorted the substance of their objections to Scorsese’s film. News stories focused again and again on the “dream sequence” at the end of the movie, emphasizing one brief scene in which Jesus makes love to Mary Magdalene and asserting that this image alone had provoked the furor in the religious community. In fact, Christian leaders identified more than 20 elements in the finished film that offended them deeply, ranging from an early scene in which Jesus crouches by the bed and watches with voyeuristic intensity as Mary Magdalene has sex with ten different men, to a later conversation in which the apostle Paul confesses that he doesn’t really believe in the Resurrection and admits that ‘I’ve created truth out of what people needed and believed.”

By ignoring the issues raised by all other aspects of the film and concentrating exclusively on the sex scene between Magdalene and Christ, the press helped to make the protesters look like narrow-minded prudes.

Solemn stupidity

As the controversy intensified in the days immediately prior to the film’s release, I tried to focus on my job as a movie critic and stay away from the increasingly hysterical theological and constitutional debates. I gathered with a dozen other critics to see the picture at a weekday screening two weeks before its release. I think we all felt the electric atmosphere in that room, thinking we were about to witness a significant moment in cinema and social history. Our anticipation arose in part from the expectations surrounding any film by Martin Scorsese, the most acclaimed director of our time. In one well-publicized poll, a group of the most prominent critics in the country made Scorsese’s movie Raging Bull their runaway choice for best American film of the 1980s.

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Unfortunately, as The Last Temptation of Christ unreeled before our astonished eyes, it became clear almost immediately that he might have retitled this new film Raging Messiah. Within its first five minutes the picture offers a sequence in which Jesus (Willem Dafoe) inexplicably assists the Romans in crucifying some innocent Jewish victim. As they nail the poor man’s feet to the bottom of the cross, blood spurts out and covers Christ’s somber cheek.

Such graphic and shocking gore recurs at regular intervals, providing the only relief to long, arid stretches of appalling boredom, laughable dialogue, and unbearably bad acting.

After the first half-hour of this solemn stupidity, I began to feel sorry for the actors. Barbara Hershey played Mary Magdalene, and for some odd reason, director Scorsese had decided to cover her lovely body from head to toe with intricate and abstract tatoos. Try as I might, I couldn’t avoid recalling the lyrics of the Groucho Marx ditty “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” whenever Miss Hershey appeared on screen. Most other women in the cast had been similarly decorated—as if Scorsese had made a startling archaeological discovery that indicated ancient Judea boasted tattoo parlors on every corner, catering exclusively to females. In reality, however, Jewish and biblical law strictly prohibited tattoos of any and all kinds, for both men and women, making a mockery of all the boasts in the official press kit about Scorsese’s “exhaustive research” on Judean customs.

Other members of the cast suffered even more intense embarrassment than Miss Hershey. Following the lead of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel that served as the source for the film, the script tries to make Judas Iscariot the most admirable and devoted of Christ’s disciples, but in his performance as Judas, the woefully miscast Harvey Keitel inspires unintended hilarity rather than sympathy. With his thick Brooklyn accent firmly intact, braying out his lines like a minor Mafioso, Keitel looks for all the world as if he has accidentally wandered onto the desert set from a very different Martin Scorsese film. He is also required to wear a flaming orange fright wig that gives him an unmistakable resemblance to a biblical bozo.

The picture is crammed with such idiotic touches—from Jesus reaching into his chest and pulling out his bloody, pumping heart to display to his impressed apostles, to the resurrected Lazarus answering a question about the contrast between life and death by mumbling, “I was a little surprised. There isn’t that much difference.” In response to such memorably miscalculated movie moments, some of my generally restrained colleagues, who attended the same critics’ screening I did, began snickering, hooting, and laughing aloud midway through the picture’s all-but-insufferable length.

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I was therefore amazed and appalled in the days that followed at the generally respectful—even reverential—tone that so many of my colleagues adopted in their reviews. In particular, I found it impossible to understand the one critic who had snorted the loudest and clucked the most derisively at the afternoon screening we both attended, but whose ultimate report to the public featured glowing praise and only the most minor reservations.

When I called him to ask about the contrast, he proved suprisingly candid in explaining his inconsistency. “Look, I know the picture’s a dog,” he said. “We both know that, and probably Scorsese knows it, too. But with all the Christian crazies shooting at him from every direction, I’m not going to knock him in public. If I slammed the picture too hard, then people would associate me with Falwell—and there’s no way I’m ready for that.”

I believe that his confidential comments offer the best explanation for the utterly undeserved critical hosannas that the picture provoked in many quarters. Other critics may never acknowledge the antireligious prejudice that helped to produce their positive reviews—and some of them may not even be consciously aware of it. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that many of my colleagues automatically assumed that any film that caused so much upset to the conventional religious community must be brave, significant, and worthy of praise.

Joel Siegel of “Good Morning America” insisted the movie was “deeply felt and ultimately faith-affirming,” while Marshall Fine of Gannett News Service called it “a work of immense imagination, one that never betrays its unshakable faith.” David Ehrenstein of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner declared, “It is without question one of the most serious, literate, complex and deeply religious films ever made.”

The public wisely ignored such glowing notices, and the film quickly developed the deadly word-of-mouth it so richly deserved. Despite saturation coverage in the press—exceeding even the epic hoopla connected with the debut of Gone With the Wind—the movie promptly bombed at the box office. Its domestic gross of $7 million scarcely covered the expenses for promotion and distribution, let alone the original cost of the production. The movie’s rental and sale on videocassette proved similarly disappointing. Blockbuster Video, the Florida-based corporation that operates the nation’s largest chain of video stores, refused even to stock the title for fear of offending its customers. Though precise figures will never be made public, best estimates indicate that Universal’s overall loss on the project could hardly have been less than $10 million—an appalling result for a project that had received the most lavish prerelease publicity in modern motion-picture history.

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Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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