Admit none: 16 protested movies
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1. The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
Nikos Kazantzakis' novel was a lightning rod of controversy from its 1951 publication, and anyone attempting to adapt it to film could only assume that trouble would follow. That didn't dissuade Martin Scorsese, however. Attracted to its psychologically complex depiction of an oft-tormented Jesus, Scorsese optioned the book in the 1970s and struggled to film it for years, even seeing one attempt shut down shortly before shooting began. When he finally finished the film, protests from conservative Catholics and Christian fundamentalists followed. Most never saw the film; they judged it from reports of a final sequence in which Willem Dafoe's dying Christ entertains the temptation to abandon His divinity and live a normal human life, even making love with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). (They might also have confused it with a widely circulated urban legend about a "gay Jesus" movie that started making the rounds in the early '80s.) But as loud as the protests were in America, they were nothing compared to an incident in Paris where a Molotov cocktail attack, a less-than-Christian gesture by most sane standards, injured 13.
2. The Love Guru (2008)
Mike Myers' comedy The Love Guru posits him as "the second-best guru in India," a white boy with a fake beard, a silly Indian accent, and a strange tendency to be surrounded by slapstick violence. A handful of Indian and American newspapers and websites are reporting anger, protests, petitions, and attempted boycotts from the Hindu community, focused on how the film mocks Hinduism and addresses the sacred guru-disciple relationship in a flippant, offensive way. It's worth noting, however, that all or most of the protests seem to come down to one highly active instigator: self-proclaimed Hindu spokesman Rajan Zed, who's generally explained in news stories with sweeping descriptions like "a prominent Indo-American spokesman," "president of the Universal Society Of Hinduism" (a group seemingly formed around the time Zed started his protests), and "spiritual leader for the Hindu community in Nevada." (Full disclosure: The A.V. Club is one of many publications Zed has been carpet-bombing with frequent bombastic press releases about his efforts against the film.) Virtually all the news reportage on the protests consists of Zed making incendiary statements on behalf of a billion Hindus worldwide, with a few other religious leaders offering broad, fuzzy statements about how comedy shouldn't come at the expense of faith. (Except, of course, for the ones quoting bestselling writer Deepak Chopra as calling people who attack the film "fundamentalists," and telling them "I would say your faith is so weak that a comedy can offend you. I would then tell them, Your faith is not faith; it's a cover up for insecurity." Ouch.) Strangely absent from the Zed-led protests: acknowledgement that the movie might be worth protesting because it looks moronic and painful to sit through.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Alex, the "hero" of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, is one of cinema's most repulsive protagonists, a thuggish punk who smirks his way through a series of rapes and beatings in the film's first half. But as played by charming, boyishly handsome Malcolm McDowell, Alex is also likeable and even sympathetic, and Kubrick's stylized direction during Alex's most "ultraviolent" sequences comes dangerously close to glamorization. At least, that was the predominant opinion in the United Kingdom, where A Clockwork Orange was blamed for numerous copycat crimes, including a rape where the attackers sang "Singin' In The Rain," in direct imitation of the film. When death threats were made against Kubrick and his family, the director asked Warner Bros. to withdraw the film in England, and it wasn't widely shown until after his death in 1998.
4. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
The idea of a horror movie about a Santa-suited serial killer seems more distasteful than offensive now, but Silent Night, Deadly Night had the misfortune of arriving in the middle of the '80s slasher-film glut, and it almost single-handedly killed off the genre. Critics and cultural commentators were already up in arms about the succession of increasingly gory, sleazy post-Halloween slasher flicks, many of them arbitrarily tied to beloved holidays. While Silent Night, Deadly Night was as silly and generic as any of them—right down to the childhood trauma that caused the villain's psychosis—a fed-up populace mobilized, threatening to boycott newspapers that carried ads for the film, and picketing outside theaters that screened it. Distributor Tristar Pictures quickly pulled all advertising, and then the movie itself. In the years that followed, slasher movies grew tamer and tamer, steering clear of sacred cows no matter how ripe they may have been for the slaughter.
5. The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
Evangelical Christians typically don't support controversial movies, they protest them. But Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ was a rare instance of believers stepping forward to defend a film that pushed the envelope on screen violence and edgy cinematic depictions of the Bible. Gibson claimed his Passion was the most "accurate" version of Christ's death ever filmed, though anti-defamation groups claimed the film blamed the Jews for the crucifixion. (Gibson was defended by the neo-Nazi National Socialist Front, the last thing the future drunken anti-Semite needed at the time.) Some also were turned off by The Passion's unrelenting gore, which caused Roger Ebert (who admired it) to call it the most violent film he'd ever seen. (New York Magazine's David Edelstein, on the other hand, dubbed it The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre.)
6. The Outlaw (1943)
Ever the savvy businessman, Howard Hughes realized that the best way to drum up interest for a humdrum Western would be to stir up controversy. First, Hughes accentuated the chest of his star, Jane Russell, by designing a cleavage-enhancing brassiere. Then he fought publicly with Hollywood's censor board, actively daring them to stop him from distributing his movie. Unfortunately, Hughes overshot his mark. The Outlaw, completed in 1941, played for a week in 1943 before being yanked, and when Hughes took a second crack at releasing it in 1946, many local legions of decency rose up and urged their town cinemas not to book it. The furor finally died down enough that The Outlaw had a full run in 1950, exposed hooter-tops and all. And, ultimately, the movie did become the ample hit Hughes had engineered it to be.
7. Cruising (1980)
When Lorimar Film Entertainment announced plans to produce an adaptation of Gerald Walker's novel Cruising directed by William Friedkin, the alternative media in New York went ballistic. "His film promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant's hate campaign," wrote Arthur Bell in the Village Voice. Gay activists urged New Yorkers to do everything they could to ruin filming in the West Village, and a lot of them complied, throwing bottles, blowing whistles during takes, and attempting to disrupt the camerawork by reflecting sunlight onto the actors with mirrors. The furor was over the plot of Walker's novel, in which a detective investigating a series of murders in gay clubs fears his own sexual feelings so much that he becomes a copycat killer. Friedkin, who had helmed The Boys In The Band a decade earlier, was no homophobe, but he also wasn't interested in rainbows and positive messages; even to this day, the seamy, sticky dread of deviant underground worlds that permeates Friedkin's film hangs over the American cultural conversation about homosexuality.
8. Basic Instinct (1992)
Paul Verhoeven's erotic thriller Basic Instinct attracted controversy even before its completion, when word got out that it featured a straight male hero plagued by murderous lesbian and bisexual women. It emerged just as gay-rights groups were becoming newly emboldened about negative portrayals, and it attempted to film in San Francisco, which created the conditions for a perfect storm. Feeding that storm: screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who offered a series of revisions after meeting with protestors. Verhoeven, however, declined to incorporate them. The film went on to become a huge hit and a frequent subject for reassessment ever since.
9. The Siege (1998)
In the middle of filming his cautionary tale about martial law in New York City, Edward Zwick met with concerned Arab-Americans from the Council On American-Islamic Relations. They wanted him to change the premise—that Islamist terrorists were targeting New York because of the U.S. abduction of an Islamic cleric, leading to a domestic military crackdown involving concentration camps and armed checkpoints. Although Zwick says he made a few alterations in the way Islam was portrayed, he refused to alter the plot, and when the movie opened, many theatergoers were confronted by protesters asking them to reconsider their ticket purchase. "The Siege is extremely offensive. It's beyond offensive. We're used to offensive, that's become a daily thing. This is actually dangerous," said Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, reflecting concerns that the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as cold-blooded mass killers could spark hate crimes and cement negative images of the groups in impressionable American minds. What the protesters missed was Tony Shalhoub as an Arab FBI agent who speaks out against Bruce Willis' military solution to the terrorist problem. It's clear Zwick is more interested in the well-meaning American villains than the hate-motivated Arab ones.
10. Saved! (2004)
There's a brief shot at the beginning of Saved!—a biting yet ultimately tender send-up of turmoil in a Christian high school—showing stars Jena Malone and Mandy Moore picketing an abortion clinic. It's almost as if writer-director Brian Dannelly was anticipating and even banking on protests from the religious right to propel his film. And the religious right obliged: Among the many howls of outrage Saved! elicited were reviews from sites like christiananswers.com, which blasted Dannelly for his portrayal of Christian leaders as "liars, adulterers, and hypocrites." Such reviews also pointed out that Saved!'s credits give thanks to George H. Smith's book Atheism: The Case Against God—and the fact that the film was co-produced by Michael "Losing My Religion" Stipe probably didn't help any.
11. Dogma (1999)
Writer-director Kevin Smith is a practicing Catholic who, like a lot of religious filmmakers, tends to work out issues of faith on film. But some of the faithful, spurred on by the Catholic League, weren't amused by Kevin Smith's 1999 film Dogma, a profanity-rich satire of contemporary religion that went through two release dates and two distributors before debuting in a hailstorm of protests, including one group of New Jersey picketers joined by an incognito Smith himself. The film was released to considerable success, and the Catholic Church somehow survived.
12. Priest (1994)
Dogma wasn't the first time producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein clashed with the Catholic Church. When Miramax distributed the British film Priest in 1995, its depiction of a gay Liverpool priest who comes to question his faith met similar resistance. The Catholic League called it "a cruel caricature of Roman Catholic priests," and though the objections caused some embarrassment for Miramax's parent company, Disney, the Weinsteins blinked only by moving its scheduled nationwide release date from Good Friday.
13. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
The funny thing about the protests over Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is that they occurred with a measure of trepidation, because for activists to decry the issues raised in the film, they had to give away its ending. So what do you do? Listen to your conscience, or abide by society's tacit anti-spoiler laws? The handful of conservative Christians and disability-rights protesters who came out against the film's euthanasia twist obviously chose the former, but how many of them were tempted to stick spoiler alerts on their placards? And would their cause have gotten more play had more neutral parties in the mainstream media not been disinclined to give too much away? Had Eastwood opened the film with an assisted suicide, he might have had a firestorm on his hands; instead, he has an Oscar.
14. Deep Throat (1972)
In the early '70s, with the culture still reeling from the sexual revolution, theaters experienced what was called "porno chic," a sudden, short-lasting trend in which it was socially acceptable for open-minded middle-class couples to take in hardcore pornography. On the special talents of Linda Lovelace, Deep Throat won major dividends for breaking the mold—some estimate that it's grossed $600 million on its $22,000 budget, though most put the figure closer to $100 million—but the costs were devastating, too. The creative principals received next to nothing for their efforts and were hit with ugly lawsuits in the years that followed; Harry Reems, the male lead, became a cause célèbre after he was jailed on obscenity charges. All the attention made the film a lightning rod for obscenity cases across the country, and whatever profits it collected were filtered through the organized-crime outfits that oversaw its financing and distribution. Now that's justice!
15. Superhero Movie (2008)
Harvey Weinstein has been at the center of controversy many times in his career (and on this list), but he's never stared down anything quite like the tempest in a teapot stirred up by his handling of a little indie comedy called Fanboys. Fanboys tells the bittersweet story of a group of Star Wars fans who travel to Skywalker Ranch in 1998 so their friend with terminal cancer can get a glimpse at Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace before he dies. Weinstein's objection to the film was fundamental: Test audiences didn't like the whole cancer thing, so he decided to drop it and redo parts of the film with a different director. Driven to take action against "Darth Weinstein," diehard Star Wars fans vowed to send protesters to whatever films the Weinstein Company deigned to distribute. First up: The gag-a-second blockbuster spoof Superhero Movie, which could be called an unfortunate victim of timing had the public protests against it not been so laughably ineffectual. A group called "The 501st" organized protests in New York and Los Angeles, but when approached by a security guard, the 14 members who turned up in New York reportedly decamped and paid to see 21 instead.
16. The Color Purple (1985)
Though eventually the recipient of the NAACP's Image award, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple had the word "controversial" attached to it long before its release. Some of it stemmed from fears that Spielberg would include the lesbian encounter between two of the principals; when he tamed the scene down to a couple of chaste images, that was protested as well, as cowardly and disrespectful to the source material. And then there was journalist Tony Brown, who singled out its depictions of rape and spousal abuse as "the most racist depiction of Black men since The Birth Of A Nation." In retrospect, that might have been something of an overstatement.