Hollywood Gets a Conscience

Reacting to an excess of violence and sex, some in the entertainment world are using faith to challenge the industry's ethic

BY: Monique Parsons

 

As Dyan Cannon nears the end of her reading, she is blinking back tears. She almost whispers the final words, slips off her glasses with a slender hand, and glides from the spotlight with a gentle shake of those long golden curls. The room answers with applause.

A movie audition? Another successful take on the "Ally McBeal" set? Guess again. Cannon, a.k.a. the sexy Judge "Whipper" Cone on the hit Fox comedy, has a cross sparkling at her neck and a Bible in her hand. She's not acting up there; she's praying.

This week Al Gore and Joe Lieberman opened a broad but vague offensive against Hollywood, that Babylon where any mayhem--violence, sex, and plain old boorish behavior--is fine as long as it sells. Yet there are people in Hollywood who worry about these excesses, whose faith or social conscience compels them to challenge the entertainment world's give-'em-what-they-want ethic.

"To a lot of people this industry is a straight ticket to hell," says Dawnn Lewis, a Seventh-Day Adventist who has starred in such sitcoms as "A Different World" and "Hanging With Mr. Cooper." Yet, she says, "there's a lot of good people out here trying to do a lot of good things."

On a recent sunny Saturday in Beverly Hills, Lewis and about 150 industry types gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel for the second annual "Praise Breakfast" organized by Media Fellowship International, one of more than a dozen Christian groups in Hollywood. As the crowd ate scrambled eggs at tables adorned with peach- and cream-colored roses, Cannon, who leads a popular Bible study on the CBS studio lot, read from the New Testament; singer Deniece Williams read from the Old; and one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, CBS Studio Center president Michael Klausman, gave a keynote speech, crediting his success to Jesus.

Klausman estimates that more than 1,000 Christians meet for organized prayer every week at his lot alone. In August, 30 screenwriters met for a month-long workshop aimed at Christians who want to write--and sell--stories for the large and small screen. Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena along with nine other religious groups host an annual "City of Angels" Christian film festival aimed at building bridges between clergy and film executives and screenwriters. Just about every night of the week, you can find Bible studies or social gatherings at churches, studio lots, and homes.

Hollywood Christians compare their position to Joseph's experience in Egypt: good folks stuck in a heathen land, trying to do the right thing. Many Christians here simply hide their faith, fearing ostracism, rejection from secular Jews inside Hollywood, and criticism from evangelicals beyond.

"We're the only people still in the closet," says Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic who runs "Act One," a workshop for Christian screenwriters sponsored by Inter-Mission, a Hollywood Christian network with 3,000 on its mailing list.

"X-Men" producer Ralph Winter, a devout Presbyterian, faults the "flavor of the week" mentality, "this frenzy to have the latest and greatest and make a bundle of money." Such pressures present "tremendous challenges for people of faith," says Nicolosi, who worships at a parish in Santa Monica popular with the Hollywood crowd. "It's hard to keep your faith if you make it. It's hard to keep your hope if you don't."

Rather than risk ridicule in an industry where it's hip to thank God at awards shows but not at church on too many consecutive Sundays, many choose to be a more subtle influence. "They see their victories not in what ends up on the screen, but what doesn't end up on the screen," Nicolosi says. "These people are my heroes. They call it holding the line."

Sometimes it can mean asking "What would Jesus do?" after reading some scripts; the answer sometimes is: "He wouldn't."

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