During the presidential campaign much was heard from Dan Quayle and others about how Hollywood is arrogantly, mischievously out of touch. After all, this is a country where more people than in any other continue to tell pollsters that they believe in God. “The distance,” wrote Pat Buchanan, “from The Sands of Iwo Jima to Born on the Fourth of July, from The Song of Bernadette to The Last Temptation of Christ is more than four decades. Hollywood has crossed a cultural and religious divide and left us on the other side.”
All of which may well be true, and seems to be confirmed by no less an authority on the movies than Michael Medved in his new book, Hollywood vs. America.1 Whether or not they are the exception that proves the rule, however, two interesting movies were released by Hollywood this past summer in which organized religion got all the flattering angles.
First to hit the screen, successfully entertain the masses, and disappear until its video reincarnation was Sister Act, directed by Emile Ardolino and starring Whoopi Goldberg as a black singer in a Las Vegas casino-hotel who is, improbably, the spoiled, mistreated, foul-mouthed mistress of its mafioso owner. Witness to a rub-out, the singer turns state’s evidence and for her protection is stowed in a convent. This does her a world of good, and in turn she does the convent’s neighboring parish church a world of good, too. We are asked to believe that the dawn wake-ups, the chastity, the swabbing of floors, the plain habit, the discipline, and communal feeling bring out the mentsh in her. She then overcomes initial resistance to vitalize the nuns’ choir, lending it that Motown sound and gaining worldwide acclaim for the up-to-now sleepy church in which it performs.
The main idea behind Sister Act is obviously to showcase Whoopi Goldberg’s singing and mugging talents, and the movie is basically one of those summertime boilerplate releases which Hollywood can produce in its sleep and which often enough find an audience to lap them up—certainly the audience in the theater with me did, and so, to judge by reports of the movie’s receipts, did audiences elsewhere around the country. In particular, the gag of a mannish hooker costumed as a nun is milked to the last drop. Is this the birth of a tradition? Hollywood does nothing more readily than ape its own successes, and Nuns on the Run (1990), featuring Cockney gangsters hiding in a convent, also did well according to Variety.
It would be wrong to read too much into the compliments Sister Act pays to religion or to the religious life. Conceivably they are cynical, Hollywood’s way of lighting a candle to the devil. A traditional Catholic might consider the movie’s entire premise disrespectful. Yet the respect Sister Act does show, or pretends to show, ought to be noticed—as does the repeatedly and blatantly implied notion that human relations in the convent and neighboring church are wonderful compared with the big world outside. Once the change in American styles during the last half-century is factored in, Sister Act emerges as an up-to-date, perishable version of two old movies about Catholic priests and nuns—Going My Way (1944) and its equally popular, heartwarming, and lucrative sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).
When it comes to pretensions, however, Sister Act has few compared with the second of the summer’s pro-religion movies, A Stranger Among Us. Here we are asked by the director, Sidney Lumet, to believe that when a Hasid is murdered in the New York diamond market, the detective assigned to the case might be a mini-skirted shikse played by Melanie Griffith, who covers her elbows and knees to pass as a baalat tshuvah (religious returnee) in the world of the Hasidim—and that before this daughter of an Irish cop solves the case, she not only comes to appreciate that these people hold the secret of the right life, but has a flirtation with their rebbe’s hunk of a genius son. No wonder the L.A. Weekly disapproved: “An old leftie like Lumet should recognize such pleading as the very definition of reactionary.”
Though Lumet’s politics have sometimes had to be inferred in his dozens of movies, just as often they come through loud and clear. His specialty is the slice-of-life—Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), Q&A (1990)—in which there are sure to be flashes of virtuosity. Usually, the inferrable politics is hard-nosed reform liberalism. But no one watching Daniel (1983) could fail to understand that the enemy was capitalism and that if the old Communist party had some faults, the New Left did not. Lumet’s weakness, odd for a specialist in hard-edged scenes, has been his sentimental preachiness. Into his homilies he has often inserted obviously Jewish characters, sometimes front and center. Until Stranger, however, the only religiously observant Jew was the deranged mother of the Ethel Rosenberg figure in Daniel.
All the more unexpected, then, this hymn to the contemporary ultra-Orthodox, for which the director has been whipped both by his political friends and by those who know Williamsburgh. The comments of the latter are on target. Missing from this portrayal of the Hasidim with its Rembrandt lighting are the hardness of their self-imposed ghetto, the strain of craziness, the fear of and contempt for blacks and Puerto Ricans, the sticky linoleum, the peaked mothers, the naked fluorescent tubes, the teenagers worrying their ear-locks, the scams on lapsed Jews with money. Even a movie as sweet as The Chosen (1981) was better on the crucial small things, down to the little girl sitting on her father’s knee as he studies a page of Talmud with a roomful of other men.
So the complaints of those who know their various Jews are on target. But they are also, in our context here, not very much to the point. Listen to what Lumet had to say in one of his post-opening interviews:
This is about a woman who comes into contact with a completely alien culture and how it opens her up. It warms her up. Makes her human again. It became necessary to treat that culture almost romantically, with a softness and gentleness that Hasidism itself doesn’t have. . . .
In other words, perhaps even while making it, Lumet wished Stranger to be a fable, its moral that one angry, unfulfilled woman of a type not exactly unknown in Manhattan and the Westside of L.A. could be rid of her anger, could glimpse fulfillment in a mini-society where women are kept in their place.
This is serious heresy, much more dangerous than the implications of, for example, the rosy picture of the Amish painted in Witness (1985). Lumet’s courage in enunciating it must be saluted. True, Melanie Griffith’s character does not go the whole hog, convert, and move to Brooklyn. But by the end we are sure that she will never again say, “I’m an independent woman, see?”
The reviewer in the New York Times, panning Stranger, guessed that its purpose was “to stimulate interest in Jewish precepts and traditions.” True, Lumet has said that he thinks it is time real Jews were portrayed on the screen. He denies, however, that he has gotten religion. He is still politically “progressive,” though he believes that the Hasidim, simply by being there, “are performing a great, great benefit.” Whatever his motivation or his purpose, never before has an identifying Jew bothered to do a movie in which the old-time religion gets the better of current shibboleths, above all feminism. (The Chosen, though more authentic, kept hands off the woman question.) In this respect Stranger may turn out to have been a freak occurrence, or it may turn out to be a pioneering step, as was another bad movie of Lumet’s, The Pawnbroker (1965), the first Hollywood film about the Holocaust to be set in America.
Many people think that we are living through the preliminary rounds of a bloody national culture war. If this is true, religion is bound to be a chief issue and weapon, and among other places the war will be fought in the movie theaters and video libraries of the land. You can never tell who is going to see a movie and have his life drastically or subtly altered by it. Already, the audience for a movie like Stranger is not just one of retired Jews and their parents—I saw and heard surfer girls nibbling their hot buttered popcorn while Melanie Griffith learned values. Do Sister Act and A Stranger Among Us portend something?
1 See the review by John Podhoretz on p. 53.—Ed.