Lewis Beale has written an L.A. Times piece (dated 11.12) about how Spotlight has once again cast the Catholic Church in a sordid light. This has been an increasingly common occurence in Hollywood movies for some time now, Beale writes. Tom McCarthy‘s fact-based saga of the Boston Globe‘s “Spotlight” team uncovering a pattern of coverups of degenerate clergy is but the latest manifestation.
We all carry around notions of the Catholic church being steeped in shady dealings, political corruption and perversity. This wasn’t always so, of course. For decades Hollywood portrayed priests as heavenly emissaries. The mid to late ’40s were the high point of Hollywood’s glorification crusade with films such as Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s and The Miracle of the Bells. But these films popped over 65 years ago.
The tide began to turn in the late ’80s, Beale believes, “when the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal began to become known.” One of the first eruptions along these lines, he contends, was Judgment, a 1990 TV flick starring David Strathairn as a Louisiana priest accused of molesting his young parishioners. That was followed by The Boys of St. Vincent, a 1992 Canadian TV film (shown theatrically in the U.S.) about boys being diddled in a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland.
But by my sights the Catholic church’s Hollywood rep has been going downhill big-time since 1982, when Frank Perry‘s Monsignor (Christopher Reeve as a priest with mafia dealings) and Sidney Lumet‘s The Verdict (the Boston archdiocese trying to pay off Paul Newman‘s sunken attorney to cover up the truth in a medical malpractice tragedy) were released.
One could argue that the seminal anti-Catholic turning point didn’t happen on film but on the stage with Rolf Hochhuth‘s The Deputy (’63), which portrayed Pope Pius XII as having failed to take action or speak out against the Holocaust. The play was such a firestorm of controversy that it didn’t become a film until ’02 when Costa-Gavras adapted it as Amen.
Beyond the sanctifications of those ’40s portrayals the Catholic church was portrayed in the holiest and most hallowed terms during the ’50s, ’60s (remember The Singing Nun‘s “Dominique“?) and even the early ’70s.
Random examples include Montgomery Clift as a noble but misunderstood priest in Alfred Hitchcock‘s I Confess (’52), Deborah Kerr as a saintly nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (’57) and Audrey Hepburn in more or less the same light in Fred Zinneman‘s The Nun’s Story (’59). Ditto Tom Tryon as a priest who stands up to the Ku Klux Klan in Otto Preminger‘s The Cardinal (’63), Sally Field in ABC’s The Flying Nun (’67 to ’70), and Anthony Quinn as Pope Kirl in The Shoes of the Fisherman (’68).
Catholic priests were definitely the good guys in The Exorcist (’73) — perhaps Hollywood’s last shining portrayal of Catholic devotion and compassion.
I only know that nine years after The Exorcist, the Catholic church had become somewhat dirtied and corrupted in Hollywood’s eyes, particularly, I would argue, in the view of The Verdict. That, to me, was the real turning point. After seeing that film I began to develop a notion that while the Catholic church is far from a violent or criminal organization, it shares more than a few similarities with the family of Vito Corleone.
This was followed, of course, by Whoopi Goldberg in Emile Ardolino‘s Sister Act (’92), but that was basically a bullshit musical fantasy. You could also argue that Tim Robbins‘ Dead Man Walking (’95), in which Susan Sarandon developed a special relationship with death-row inmate Sean Penn, portrayed the church as purely compassionate.
Beale responds: “There’s a huge difference between covering up a single act of medical malpractice in The Verdict and covering up a sex abuse scandal that is international in scope. Everyone I talked to for this piece agreed that the change in attitude towards the church stemmed from the uncovering of the pedophilia scandal. Not one person mentioned The Verdict.”