In the July 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Joe Queenan asked the big questions about movies about bad members of the clergy. Like why does God allow these movies to exist and which level of hell is reserved for the makers of Last Rites and Monsignor?
For centuries, Catholic theologians have vainly striven to solve two seemingly unfathomable mysteries: How is it possible to reconcile the existence of a merciful, loving God with the existence of people like Mickey Rourke; and, if God is truly All-Knowing and All-Powerful, an omnipotent force who can make the oceans swell and the mountains tremble, why doesn’t He do something about Daphne Zuniga? More to the point, why does He tolerate anyone who makes movies such as Last Rites, Exorcist II: The Herectic, A Prayer for the Dying and Monsignor–all of which deal contemptuously with the religion His Well-Beloved Son shed His Most Precious Blood to establish? This is, after all, His universe. It’s not like He has to put up with this stuff.
The complete answer to these questions is too convoluted to go into here, so let’s just put it this way: God doesn’t enjoy movies like Last Rites and The Pope Must Diet any more than the rest of us. But since the Fall of Man, or so Catholics believe, God has endowed all of His human creations with free will and has allowed them to determine their own destinies. For some, this means acting in, directing, scripting, being a gaffer for the second technical unit of or paying to see movies about Catholic priests. People such as this can live rich, productive, morally upstanding lives, trying to make the best of the tools God has given them, and either participate in or shell out their hard-earned money to see movies like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Or, they can become the tools of Satan and waste their lives in charnel houses, fleshpots, brothels and business schools, producing, directing or going to see movies like Last Rites and The Exorcist III. God has made the choice very clear: You can spend your time watching wholesome, upbeat, life-affirming films, and at the end of your days I will sit you at my right hand, just a few seats from John Hughes and Ronnie Howard. Or you can spend your life watching libidinous, perverse films, and at the end of your days I will cast you into the very deepest pit of hell. (The very deepest pit of hell, or course, is the first left past Renny Harlin’s house.)
The most important thing to remember when dealing with films featuring Catholic priests is that there are limits to God’s power, even if He is, officially, omnipotent. Not even an omnipotent creature who has ruled all of creation since the beginning of time can teach Christopher Reeve how to act. Not even the most powerful being in the universe can breathe any pep into Jason Miller. And once an implacable force of nature like Richard Burton or Robert De Niro or Sean Penn has made up his mind that he is going to wreck a film, no power in the cosmos can stand in his way.
The purpose of this article is to determine precisely which film about priests is most offensive in the eyes of God–which film has won for its producer, director, stars, best boy, etc., the longest and most terrifying sojourn in the Inferno. I do this not out of some personal sense of outrage at immoral, Catholic-bashing slime such as Monsignor and Last Rites, but in direct response to voluminous inquiries from Movieline readers demanding to know why the magazine doesn’t run more stories dealing with the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, and, of course, the Seven Deadly Sins.
But first, some history. Movies about priests first came to prominence during the 1930s and 1940s, when such sturdy offerings as Angels With Dirty Faces and Fighting Father Dunne were box-office favorites. These films had three common characteristics: they all starred Pat O’Brien as a crusading priest, they all celebrated the triumph of good over evil, and not for a single moment did anyone even faintly resembling Daphne Zuniga or Genevieve Bujold offer to roll in the hay with anyone wearing a Roman collar.
These movies were succeeded by charming Bing Crosby vehicles such as Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s (Going My Way II), in which the low-key crooner tried to hold his own against the radiant Ingrid Bergman, the most beautiful movie star of them all, who upon her death was immediately assumed into heaven, Roberto Rossellini or no Roberto Rossellini. These movies bore little or no relation to what professionals call “reality,” but then again, neither does heaven.
At the same time, Gregory Peck was starring in slightly weightier films such as Keys of the Kingdom, and pious chaplains were turning up in war movies all over the place. These films were made by people who did not think religion was impossibly stupid or who, if they did, kept their opinions to themselves. This is even true of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 I Confess, which deals with a somewhat dim priest (Montgomery Clift) who cannot divulge the identity of a murderer to the police because the murderer has confessed the crime in the confessional–even though this means that the priest himself may be framed for the crime. Hitchcock may have felt that this seal-of-confession business was hopeless rigmarole, but this does not come across in the film. What does come across in the film is that Hitchcock can really use a camera and that even in black-and-white, Karl Malden has the biggest nose in Quebec.
Things started to change during the 1960s, as movies about priests became grittier and less deferential. The Hoodlum Priest (1961) dealt with the efforts of street-smart cleric Don Murray to save the soul of teenage hood Keir Dullea, literally a bad actor playing a bad actor. The Cardinal (1963), an interminable Otto Premingeriatricism, featured an actor, Tom Tryon (who had once played a TV character named Texas Ranger John Slaughter), playing a priest who falls in love with a hot little number played by Romy Schneider (which raises the question of whether Romy was the real-life mother of actress Maria, who was later buggered by Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris and forced to appear in a Michelangelo Antonioni movie, both of which could then be explained away as divine retribution visited on the innocent child for the sin of her parent: appearing in a movie as bad as The Cardinal).
The year 1964 witnessed the making of the greatest priest film ever–Becket–which concerns the spiritual apotheosis of a lecher and rake, played by Richard Burton, after he is named Archbishop of Canterbury by his lecherous, rakish chum, the King of England, played by Peter O’Toole (obviously, it wouldn’t have been too hard for Burton and O’Toole to switch roles). Seven years later, Ken Russell released his refreshingly depraved The Devils, a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life, featuring all-purpose knave Oliver Reed as a priest and veteran space creature Vanessa Redgrave as a nun. This type of casting is right up there with Charlotte Rampling as a marine biologist in Orca, Sigourney Weaver as an expert on Middle Eastern history in Half Moon Street and Diane Keaton as anyone in anything.
Since Becket and The Devils, we have fallen on hard times. In fact, with the exception of the intelligent, moving True Confessions, the cheerfully revolting The Exorcist, and such well-meaning but overwrought offerings as Mass Appeal and Romero, it’s been straight downhill. We have had knuckleheadisms such as The Rosary Murders and The Shoes of the Fisherman, sadistic trash such as Last Rites, A Prayer for the Dying and the Exorcist sequels, and idiotic comedies such as We’re No Angels and The Pope Must Diet. What we have had is a steady diet of bad-priest movies.
There are three basic types of bad-priest movies: the priest-as-imposter picture, the seal-of-confession picture and the Mafia-priest picture. (There is often a good deal of overlap, too: Last Rites is both a seal-of-confession and a Mafia-priest picture.) The priest-as-imposter picture features a bum, hired killer or fuck-knuckle who disguises himself as a cleric and suddenly finds himself suffused with inexhaustible supplies of piety and goodness–just like Sinead O’Connor. The genre originated with The Left Hand of God, the 1955 film starring Humphrey Bogart which is set in the Mysterious East, evolved further in Guns for San Sebastian, the 1968 Anthony Quinn film set in the Wild West, and culminated in We’re No Angels, the 1989 Robert De Niro-Sean Penn film, set in Buffalo or Canada or something–which is itself a remake of, yes, an old Bogart film.
The Mafia-priest picture deals with attempts by sinister forces whose names end in a vowel to take control of the already debauched Catholic Church. The first–and most ghastly–film of this sort is Monsignor, a 1982 abomination so ferociously anti-Catholic one suspects that Satan Himself had something to do with it. But no, it was not Satan; it was Frank Yablans. Monsignor stars the abysmal Christopher Reeve, features a score by the useless John Williams and has a supporting cast headed by full-service ham Fernando Rey. The movie deals with the villainy of Reeve, the Vatican business manager, who does business with the Mafia and nearly brings the Church crashing down around him– not that Frank Yablans would care. In this sense, Monsignor is a little bit like Last Rites, which deals with a priest whose dad is a Mafia don. And it’s also just a teensy-weensy bit like The Godfather, Part III, which deals with a Vatican banker who does business with the Mafia. And, yes, it does bear ever so slight a resemblance to The Pope Must Diet, which deals with a Cardinal who is in league with the Mafia.
An unsophisticated viewer might have a hard time telling some of these movies apart. Each of these movies makes Italians seem vicious and Catholic clergymen seem beastly. Each of these movies has a central character played by an actor or actress who cannot act: Christopher Reeve, Tom Berenger, Sofia Coppola, Robbie Coltrane. Each of these movies involves a Mafia hit man. How, then, to tell them apart? The handiest way is by remembering which illicit sexual act the characters engage in during the movie. Last Rites is the one where the priest sleeps with his sister, who is a hit woman, as well as with a Mexican whore. The Pope Must Diet is the one where the priest sleeps with the mother of a dead British rock star. Monsignor is the one where the priest sleeps with a French nun. And Godfather III is the one where the priest doesn’t sleep with anyone. Godfather III is the one where the Mafia hit man sleeps with his first cousin, who should have been Winona Ryder, but ended up being the director’s daughter, a certifiable non-fox.
I hope all of this has been helpful.
Just as mob-priest pictures seem to overlap at certain points, seal-of-confession pictures all seem to run together. Ever since Montgomery Clift clammed up about the killer’s identity in I Confess, Hollywood has been going back to this particular well again and again and again. In The Rosary Murders, inexplicably set in Detroit, a serial killer confesses his crimes to Donald Sutherland, who is bound by the seal of confession not to reveal his identity to the police. In Last Rites, Tom Berenger’s hit sister confesses that she murdered her husband, but Berenger is bound by the seal of confession not to reveal her identity to the cops. (Berenger, of course, has other reasons for keeping a lid on it; he was banging sis when he was just 15.) In True Confessions, all-around lowlife Charles Durning tells Robert De Niro that he was banging a murdered, mutilated playgirl, but De Niro cannot report this to his cop brother because of the seal of confession. (De Niro, of course, has other reasons for keeping a lid on it; he also knows the murdered, mutilated girl.) In Exorcist III, Satan himself confesses his sins to a priest, who cannot reveal his identity to the police because of the seal of confession, and also because Satan rips his head off. In Monsignor, scumbag mobster Jason Miller confesses his sins to scumbag priest Christopher Reeve, who cannot divulge his crimes because of the seal of confession. (Reeve, of course, has other reasons for not divulging his crimes to the cops, because the penitent scumbag happens to be his partner in crime.) Finally, in A Prayer for the Dying, a low-life, gun-toting, child-murdering, IRA psychopath played by Mickey Rourke (the role was a real stretch for Mickey) confesses to a murder in Father Bob Hoskins’s confessional after Hoskins has seen him commit the crime.
Here we get into one of the more troubling areas of bad-priest cinema. Anytime a bunch of people living in Hollywood, New York or London–whose last names do not end in “i” or begin with “O”–decide to get together and make a film about the Catholic Church, they run the tiny risk of misinterpreting esoteric points of Catholic theology, and frequently end up with movies that are even stupider than they had intended them to be. For example, in The Rosary Murders, Donald Sutherland is told by his pastor that Catholic dogma forbids baptizing children born out of wedlock. This is not true: ask the millions of Chinese babies baptized against their will in the 1940s. The same is true of A Prayer for the Dying. Once a priest has witnessed a murder, he is under no obligation to suppress the identity of the criminal, even if the criminal subsequently confesses his guilt to the priest. This is particularly true if the criminal looks like Mickey Rourke. The lesson to be learned? When making a movie dealing with subtle nuances of Catholic theology, hire a screenwriter named Patrick O’Shaughnessy, not one named Elmore Leonard.
Priest movies are loaded with repeat offenders. Jason Miller appears in three priest movies (The Exorcist, The Exorcist III, Monsignor), as does Robert De Niro (We’re No Angels, True Confessions, The Mission) and Charles Durning (Mass Appeal, True Confessions, The Rosary Murders), who bounces back and forth between being a fat, low-energy Brian Dennehy and a thin, low-energy John Goodman. Richard Burton also appears in three (The Robe, Becket, Exorcist II: The Heretic), while Anthony Quinn actually appears in four: The Shoes of the Fisherman, Guns for San Sebastian, Behold a Pale Horse and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Bill Conti rewrote Samuel Barber’s music for Mass Appeal before rewriting The Chieftains’ music for A Prayer for the Dying. Jogging clerics figure prominently in The Exorcist, Mass Appeal and The Rosary Murders. And even though Daphne Zuniga has only appeared in one bad-priest film to date, she is still young enough and awful enough to have at least three more cracks at it. The one bright spot in all this: Zeljko Ivanek is probably not going to reprise his role as a brash, bisexual seminarian in Mass Appeal II.
Watching movies about priests drives home a number of important truths about life on this planet, truths that are all too easy to forget as we blindly pursue our daily tasks. Here are a handful of these truths: Christopher Reeves really is the worst actor that ever lived; Donald Sutherland really is a charter member of Bob & Ray’s Slow. . . Talkers. ..of. ..America . . . Club; when Robert De Niro is bad (We’re No Angels), he is worse than Sean Penn. (What can you say about a movie in which Sean Penn and Robert De Niro are out-acted by Hoyt Axton? Well, for starters you can say, “Boy, that movie sucked.”)
And then there is The Strange Case of Linda Blair. When Blair starred in The Exorcist 19 years ago, she received almost universal acclaim for her portrayal of a sweet, 12-year-old girl whose body is suddenly taken over by Satan. But with the passage of time, it has now become apparent that Linda Blair was always possessed by Satan, and that the kudos she achieved should have been for being a 12-year-old demon talented enough to deceive an audience into thinking she was ever a sweet, 12-year-old girl.
Much the same thought occurred to me after watching The Poseidon Adventure, one of those brain-dead, big-budget, all-star extravaganzas that could only have been made in the 1970s, the era of disco and legionnaires’ disease and The Bay City Rollers and Jimmy Carter. Although Gene Hackman plays a minister rather than a priest in this film, he is such a complete asshole that he could easily be mistaken for many Catholic priests, or, for that matter, for Charles Durning, so we will include him here. The Poseidon Adventure chronicles the daring efforts of nine characters played by Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Red Buttons, Pamela Sue Martin and Jack Albertson to escape from an ocean liner that has turned completely upside down. Watching the movie, I could not help thinking how much fun going to the movies would have been in the ensuing decade if Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Red Buttons, Pamela Sue Martin and Jack Albertson had actually been on a real-life ocean liner and had drowned. Still, The Poseidon Adventure is worth seeing for four reasons: 1) Carol Lynley wears hot pants the entire movie; 2) Pamela Sue Martin wears hot pants the entire movie; 3) Stella Stevens wears panties, high heels and a man’s shirt the entire movie; and 4) Shelley Winters keeps all her clothes on for the entire movie.
In addition to Gene Hackman’s insane tirades against God, the last one conducted while suspended above a fiery cauldron–not a good place to be fucking with the Lord of All Creation, Whom you will be seeing in about 20 seconds on the other side of reality–the movie is memorable because it confirms that Pamela Sue Martin has the most enormous forehead in the history of show business; because it dispells any lingering doubts anyone might have that Ernest Borgnine is the second-worst actor of all time; and because it allows the moviegoing public to see Shelley Winters act underwater (she’s better down there,- she can’t talk). After her dip, Winters succumbs to a stroke and tells Hackman: “Enough is enough.” I think Shelley knew the score.
In preparing this article, I watched 21 different films with priests as the major protagonists. While doing so, I mentally ranked the films in order of artistic excellence and faithfulness to Catholic dogma. I rated the films on a scale of 0 to 100, deducting points if a film omitted ominous Gregorian chants (5 points), belfries (3 points), statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary with eyes that appear to move (3 points), tunnels/catacombs (5 points), prostitutes with hearts of gold (7points), Latin mumbo jumbo (8 points), nuns making eyes at priests (4 points), the “Kyrie Eleison” (3 points) or Charles Durning (15 points). Based on these criteria, I provide the following rankings:
|Priest||I Confess||Last Rites|
|Fake Priest||The Left Hand of God||We’re No Angels|
|Bishop||The Bishop’s Wife||The Bishop’s Wife*|
|Cardinal||The Godfather Part III||The Cardinal|
|Pope||The Shoes of the Fisherman||The Pope Must Diet|
|Monks||The Name of the Rose||Stealing Heaven|
|Exorcists||The Exorcist||Exorcist II, III**|
*This is the only movie about bishops that I could find.
**A tie. Only a Jesuit could tell which of these monstrosities is the worst. And whatever my other failings, I am no Jesuit.
Some of these movies contain memorable scenes that will remain rooted in my consciousness for decades to come. For example, I really enjoyed the scene in Monsignor where Genevieve Bujold says to Christopher Reeve: “Do you think God was planning to waste a miracle on us?” But Genevieve, he already had. He got both of you jobs in the movies.
Another line I cannot get out of my head is: “You might ask Sister Margaret Mary of the Holy Martyrs.” This is a throwaway line someone says to Donald Sutherland in The Rosary Murders, yet for some reason within its terse, syntactical borders it seems to capture everything that one needs to know about the nunnish subculture. “You might ask Sister Margaret Mary of the Holy Martyrs.” And if she’s not available, try Sister Immaculata Redemptoris of the Holy Innocent Bystanders.
I also took solace from Sean Penn’s sermon in We’re No Angels, where he says: “Be nice to strangers, ’cause sometimes you’re a stranger too.” Add to that a hooker’s remark to Father Tom Berenger in Last Rites: “I didn’t know that priests hung out with assholes.” Who did you think they hung out with, honey? Daphne Zuniga?
While watching these hopeless, immoral, cretinous priest films, one question that kept going through my head was: Who will burn in Hell the longest for making one of these things? Artistically speaking, it was hard to choose between the moronic We’re No Angels, the depraved Last Rites, the sacrilegious Monsignor and the boisterously shitheaded A Prayer for the Dying. Yet, at the last moment, my Catholic upbringing told me to eliminate We’re No Angels, which, despite its truly awesome stupidity, was only a misfiring comedy, and also to rule out A Prayer for the Dying, whose central character was not the good priest badly played by Bob Hoskins but the merry psychopath convincingly played by Mickey Rourke.
This narrowed things down to Last Rites and Monsignor. Speaking in purely cinematic terms, it was impossible to choose between these celluloid abortions. Last Rites featured a terrible actor playing a mob priest; Monsignor featured a terrible actor playing a mob priest. Last Rites featured a terrible actress playing a psychotic hooker; Monsignor featured a terrible actress playing a neurotic, slutty nun. In Last Rites, Tom Berenger’s childhood friend is a Mafia hood; in Monsignor, Christopher Reeve’s best friend is a Mafia hood. Deciding which of these two flicks is the worst is like being a judge at the 25th Annual Putrescent Fruit of the Year Awards and having to choose between a rotten apricot and a festering nectarine.
Ultimately, it came down to a question of good and evil. Since the artistic distinctions between these films were so negligible, the only way to decide which was the most morally repugnant film was to tote up the number of sins committed in each one. It was a pretty impressive list:
|Mortal sins in Last Rites||Mortal Sins in Monsignor|
|Priest sleeps with a hit woman who is not his sister||Priest sleeps with a nun|
|Priest sleeps with a hit woman who is his sister||Priest sells cigarettes to the Mafia|
|Priest leads Mafia to his girlfriend so they can ice her||Priest leads the Mafia to his best friend, so they can ice him|
|Priest leaves Catholic Church to become capo di tutti i capi in his dad’s company||Priest stays in church so he can keep investing money with Mafia|
|Venial sins in Last Rites||Venial sins in Monsignor|
|Repeated profanity, fantasizing about sleeping with one’s sister, mild fibbing||Not much profanity, but lots of fibbing|
On balance, I guess you would have to say that Last Rites is the more immoral movie of the two–this sleeping with your hit-person sister does not look good at all–and that everyone associated with it will burn in hell for all eternity. But we mustn’t overlook intangibles. Last Rites is so bad that it immediately went to video, so the number of impressionable youths who have seen it is quite limited. But because Frank Yablans was the producer of Monsignor, it was actually released theatrically, and actually filled up movie screens everywhere, poisoning the minds of children all over the country, if not the world. In terms of evil inflicted on humanity, it has probably had a far greater and far more pernicious effect than Last Rites.
Then we have to factor in the Christopher Reeve thing. When I say that Christopher Reeve is the worst actor that ever lived, I am not speaking off the top of my head; I have seen all of Lou Diamond Phillips’s movies, and am no stranger to the oeuvres of Don Johnson and John Ritter. Yet this guy is head-and-shoulders below these guys. Indeed, Christopher Reeve’s continued ability to find work would seem to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the universe has no purpose and that life has no meaning. If God truly loved us, He still might not do something about Daphne Zuniga, but He would definitely do something about Christopher Reeve. Still, in God’s defense, it is not His fault. Every human being possesses his own free will, and if we choose to exercise our free will by going to see movies like Monsignor and Exorcist II, then we all deserve to burn in hell.
See you in hell, Mr. Yablans.
Joe Queenan wrote “The King and His Court” for our January/February issue.