Talk of faith doesn’t seem to faze fans as long it accompanies success
What happens when a Hollywood star spouts off about religion?
The potential for permanent fan alienation has made religion, like politics, long a taboo topic for most celebrities to publicly schmooze about. Yet with early success — “War of the Worlds” took in $113.3 million in North America in its first week — it looks as if the sci-fi film is on Cruise control, and moviegoers are seemingly shrugging off his rants on religion, psychiatry and postpartum depression as well as his couch-hopping for his new fiancee, Katie Holmes.
Given Hollywood’s 19-week box-office losing streak, observers note that as long as stars’ films are hits, they might now feel emboldened to speak out about anything that smacks of controversy, short of clubbing baby seals.
“What counts is box-office success. The religion of Hollywood is money,” says Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Still, Cruise’s ramblings on his promotional tour — as opposed to Brad Pitt’s more focused spotlighting of African poverty while promoting “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” — are considered off-putting among some Hollywood insiders and public relations pros who typically position their celebrity clients in as neutral a spotlight as possible.
“Usually people don’t proselytize,” says director Peter Bogdanovich, who helmed “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon.” “It’s rare that entertainers stick their neck out, because politics and religion are things people get touchy about. And besides, it’s a pretty personal thing, religion, so people stay out of it.”
No longer, thanks to the box-office clout of stars such as Mel Gibson. After mainstream Hollywood studios and distributors spurned “The Passion of the Christ” because some thought it was too violent and included anti-Semitic themes, Gibson, who was forced to finance the film on his own, began discoursing his fundamentalist views on Catholicism. The movie wound up raking in more than $370 million in the United States alone, the most successful R-rated film ever.
“Things have changed a lot in the past year,” says Ray Comfort, author of “What Hollywood Believes: An Intimate Look at the Faith of the Famous.” “Before ‘Passion,’ any talk of religion might have killed a career. But the cat’s out of the bag now.”
Some suggest that talking about religious beliefs might simply be part of orchestrated PR campaigns to generate attention.
“People are talking about Tom Cruise more than they ever did in the past five years,” says Variety managing editor Michael Speier. “He used to be so manufactured. Is he a strange cat? Sure. But are people saying they won’t see a movie with that freak? No.”
The relationship between celebrities and religion can be mutually beneficial. “Religious groups clearly feel having a celebrity endorsement helps give pizazz and credibility, just like any product that benefits from a celebrity endorser,” says Steve Waldman, editor of beliefnet.com, a multi-faith and spiritual Web site. “It’s particularly true with Scientology or kabbalah.”
Perhaps more so than other religions, Scientology draws particular scrutiny. It has been investigated as a sect in Germany and even discounted as a religion. Yet Scientology, founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, boasts 8 million disciples, including celebs John Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley and Kirstie Alley. Most are effusive in their praise.
Some stars are open about the potential conflicts between their faith and their careers.
“I was raised a Mormon, but I don’t live that way,” says Paul Walker, star of “The Fast and the Furious.” “I feel Mormons as a whole definitely wouldn’t condone the things I’ve done as of late. Maybe I have a sick way of justifying it, but I portray characters. It’s not necessarily something I condone.”
Public relations types, who largely control when, where and often what their Hollywood clients talk about in public, still prefer that stars remain as innocuous and bland as possible. They fear that fans who are accustomed to “wardrobe malfunctions,” reality TV and increasingly odd star behavior could tire of celebrities speaking out on matters as sensitive as religion.
“It hurts celebrities,” says media image consultant Michael Sands. “Celebrities should maintain separation of church and state. These people are not Billy Graham.”