Movie stars aren’t just about paparazzi, private jets and plentiful cash. Some of them are also about religion.
Mel Gibson’s traditional Catholicism, which helped prod him into making “The Passion of the Christ,” has set the bar for a celebrity-religion mixture that yields a film.
Newspapers and magazines have been intensely talking about religion and Hollywood now for more than a year, and the conversation isn’t letting up. CNN is producing a series about Hollywood and religion, which includes segments on the Left Behind phenomenon, “The Passion” and pop singer Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah.
Aside from the general interest in Hollywood and religion, the specifics of movie stars who begin incorporating their religion into their media products is fascinating.
MSNBC.com columnist Jeannette Walls reported that Columbia Pictures spent about $100,000 digitally removing a red Kabbalah bracelet from Ashton Kutcher’s wrist in the recently released movie “Guess Who.”
Kutcher, like Demi Moore, Britney Spears and Madonna, is reportedly interested in what Walls termed the “mystical offshoot of Judaism.” Some Kabbalah adherents wear a red bracelet, which allegedly has to do with warding off negative energies.
Test audiences were annoyed by Kutcher’s bracelet, so the studio nixed it.
That’s a small example, however, of how some of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars are bringing their religion into the spotlight.
Consider Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.
Gibson embraced his religion in an incredibly public way by making “The Passion of the Christ.” His Catholicism had long been on the back-burner of conversations about the star, in the same way that Scientology has been for Tom Cruise.
Gibson put his religion on the front-burner with “The Passion,” and one has to wonder what Tom Cruise has up his sleeve.
Thus far, Cruise hasn’t attempted any overt Scientological treatise on film—nothing comparable to “The Passion of the Christ.”
But Cruise is the subject of a recent New York Times article about how the star is increasingly making Scientology part of his public profile. The article detailed how Cruise invited film executives distributing his upcoming “War of the Worlds” movie to tour Scientology facilities in California.
It was also on the set of the Steven Spielberg movie that Cruise set up a “Scientology tent” where cast and crew could receive Scientology information and massages.
Oddly enough, another movie star who hasn’t shied away from discussing his religion is Richard Gere, a Buddhist (and like Gibson and Cruise, one of People magazine’s “sexiest men alive”).
Gere hasn’t produced a Buddhist project along the lines of “The Passion,” but he has done some TV work about Tibet—a cause for which he advocates—and he has founded the Gere Foundation.
Gere’s story, however, is more akin to an actor lending his celebrity to a cause—something like Charlton Heston reading the Bible for an audio book—as opposed to throwing his full weight behind a major pet project.
The latter happened when Cruise’s fellow Scientologist, actor John Travolta, tried making a movie version of the science-fiction novel Battlefield Earth by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard back in 2000. The big-budget flick was a critical and commercial disaster.
If Travolta’s misstep served as a warning for other actors, it certainly didn’t deter Gibson. The results for “Battlefield Earth” and “The Passion of the Christ” could hardly have been more dissimilar.
Of course, “The Passion” was able to capitalize on the church market and the millions of Christians across the globe. Scientology simply doesn’t have those numbers.
Not all stars, of course, care to speak publicly about their religious practices or lack thereof.
When I was covering the movie “Constantine” in February, star Keanu Reeves refused to speak about his spirituality or religion.
“It’s something I think is very personal, and it’s something that is private,” he told reporters.
His fellow actors increasingly appear to be drawing a different conclusion.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.