AP, May 22, 2003
By ANTHONY BREZNICAN
AP Entertainment Writer
Oh, how the Almighty has fallen – if you consider it a demotion to be brought down to Earth by the movies.
The character of God has become increasingly human and secular in comedies such as “Oh, God!,” “Dogma” and the new “Bruce Almighty,” suggesting mainstream audiences are more open than ever to wacky, nonreligious versions of The Man Upstairs.
Pious films like 1956’s “The Ten Commandments” depicted God in the traditional Biblical style: pillar of fire, booming disembodied voice, glowing sunset. Recent incarnations have been less reverent, and God gets the guy-next-door treatment in “Bruce Almighty.”
“We always tried to humanize him in some way. He’s probably, you know, just a shaft of light in a doorway,” said Jim Carrey, who stars in “Bruce Almighty” as a TV reporter blessed (or cursed) with God’s powers after complaining too much about the world.
“I wanted God in this thing to be the guy who’s absolutely dignified and has this austere quality and this kind of no-nonsense to him, but at the same time he has a sense of humor, because God made our senses of humor,” Carrey added.
Morgan Freeman co-stars as the deity who transfers his omnipotence to Bruce, who uses the power first to lift a woman’s skirt and help people win the lottery before eventually realizing he should be more careful.
“We tend to blame God for everything, and what this movie deals with is basically the get-off-your-butt philosophy. Don’t ask for all the answers to be given to you,” said director Tom Shadyac.
Seeing a wisecracking God on film is a way for modern audiences to identify with the concept of a higher power, said Albert J. Bergesen, co-author of the book “God in the Movies: A Sociological Investigation.”
“This is our metaphoric language,” said Bergesen, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona. “In a world in which it’s considered normal and sincere to be frank and open, people cast God in that image, too.”
Bergesen said movie Gods are comparable to trying to understand God centuries ago by describing him as “the King of Kings” or representing him as natural phenomenon – bolts of lightning, or a white dove.
The white-bearded strongman painted by Michelangelo in the “Creation of Adam” mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel anthropromorphized God in 1512, shaping the way people from the Judeo-Christian culture have imagined him ever since.
Putting God on film, however, was risky for many years.
In addition to the Second Commandment, which admonishes the creation of graven images, the 1930s Hays Code, a decades-long precursor to the current movie ratings system, set standards forbidding the ridicule of religion and faith.
That limited God’s Hollywood career mainly to religious dramas, but some filmmakers found creative ways to indirectly feature the character.
In 1950’s “The Next Voice You Hear,” starring James Whitmore and former first lady Nancy Reagan (then Nancy Davis), God speaks to the world through radio broadcasts to warn about the dangers of war. The characters hear the voice, but the audience never does.
Years later, movie standards relaxed to the point where it was safe to cast God in human form.
“Oh, God!” in 1977 featured the elderly George Burns as the bespectacled, kindly deity who asks a grocery clerk (John Denver) to be his next prophet.
“Humor suggests to me a form of tolerance, and we want to think that if he-she exists maybe our actions will be seen with the same sort of tolerance,” said screenwriter Larry Gelbart, who adapted the “Oh, God!” script from a novel by Avery Corman.
Burns, who died in 1996 at age 100, was the key to selling the character.
“He was modest and restrained, but he gave you the sense that he’d seen it all – in addition to creating it all. He was perfect,” he said. “I’m sure if God had cast approval, and in a way I guess he did, George would have sat well with him.”
In that movie and “Bruce Almighty,” traditional religious iconography is mainly set aside. Movie Gods are usually self-help humanists who don’t favor those who worship under the Crucifix, Star of David, the Quran or at the feet of Buddah.
“That doesn’t give any one religion any leg up on the truth, and in a pluralistic society pretty much brings religion down to Earth,” said Bryan P. Stone, author of “Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema.”
“There’s a downside to that because when religion gets divorced from traditions and communities it begins to lose any real power, socially or publicly,” added Stone, a professor at Boston University’s School of Theology. “It may make a difference in an individual’s life, but it doesn’t make any difference in shaping our collective ideas of what’s good for human beings or what the common good is.”
Still, if a movie gets people talking about God, he said, that’s a good thing.
One film that did address a particular religion – writer-director Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” – explored Roman Catholicism from the point of view of two disaffected potheads. That film featured disheveled actor Bud Cort as a Skeeball-playing God who later takes the form of singer Alanis Morissette.
The comedy led to an outcry from conservative Catholics angry over the film’s profanity, dirty jokes and casting of a female rock star known for raunchy, angry lyrics as God.
“Bruce Almighty” director Shadyac acknowledged that the very idea of featuring God in a comedy is blasphemous to some people, although offending the religious was not his intent.
“To me, it’s almost blasphemous to think one could NOT utilize a sense of humor to discuss spiritual or godly issues,” he said. “The movie is really not making fun of God. If you look at the dramatic through-line of the movie, it’s God making fun of man.”