LBTM: Growing Pains

LBTM: Growing Pains December 1, 2008

As we begin Part 3 of the movie, CamCam is back at GNN space command central, editing his footage of the mysterious man in the prophet costume. But this time, Mr. Fake Beard and Bathrobe is speaking in Hebrew.

"What's he saying?" CamCam asks.

"I don't know, it sounds like Hebrew," the mystery girl from Part 1 says. Several days have passed since we first saw her (I think), and she's wearing a different outfit, but she still has that greasy smear on her forehead. So if it's not Ash Wednesday, what is that? The Smudge of the Beast?

"I was there," CamCam says. "I heard him. It was English."

As he says this, CamCam appears sincerely and genuinely to be trying to look like someone who is puzzled. This is the only way one can apply the words "sincere" or "genuine" to his performance in this film. "Never let 'em catch you acting," Spencer Tracy said, but it's a rare moment in this movie when we don't catch Kirk Cameron doing exactly that.

We need to deal with this recurring obstacle if we're ever going to get through this movie, so let's just state this directly here: Kirk Cameron is not a good actor.


This is not entirely his own fault. Cameron began as a child actor and, like many child actors, he was for years rewarded for obnoxious behavior, mugging, over-reacting, etc. And for most of his career as a child actor, he was working on a three-camera sitcom with awful writing in a context that never really required him to listen or react when his character wasn't the one speaking. During his formative years, in other words, he was in a sense indoctrinated with some of the worst habits a young actor could develop.

When considering child actors and former child actors, we should always try to be charitable. Think of Stand By Me. That film featured some quite good performances from a quartet of very young actors. The most gifted and impressive of the bunch died at 23. For two of the others, that childhood role turned out to be the best thing they ever did — one of them is now an accomplished blogger and the other survives as a "Celebreality" relic on VH-1. Only one of the four has gone on to a solid career as a capable adult actor.

Those are roughly the odds for a child actor, the Stand By Me odds — a 1-in-4 shot at the narrow path to a successful future in acting, with the perils and pitfalls of self-destruction and the Surreal Life looming on either side. For every Doogie or Opie who grows up to become a successful artist, there are even more Drummonds and Bradys and Coreys who wind up as sad-case tabloid fodder.

So recognizing that Cameron is a recovering child actor, I want to be somewhat charitable and not be unfairly critical. Having said all that, though, he's still simply not a good actor.

This is of interest to us here because it seems to me that Cameron's acting woes are inextricably tied up with his particular religious views. Kirk Cameron is famously (infamously?) a born-again Christian and a devout believer in precisely the peculiar variety of American evangelical Christianity that LaHaye and Jenkins teach and promote through their Left Behind books.

In working through the first book in that series, we noted the many ways that Bad Theology leads to Bad Writing. Here I want to turn to the related matter of how Bad Theology can lead to Bad Acting.

The word "theology" means, literally, the study of God, but this is not and never has been the exclusive concern of theology. It is also eminently concerned with the study of human nature. The nature and meaning of human existence is a central concern of all Christian theology. It is also, of course, a central concern of the theater and of acting.

The Rube Goldberg machine of Tim LaHaye's dispensational eschatology is Bad Theology not just because it's a silly 19th-century invention that requires the vivisection and pureeing of scripture, but also because it's based on assumptions about human nature (and divine nature) that are incompatible with what most Christians believe. It's based on assumptions about human nature, in fact, that seem irreconcilable with what most humans believe — with what most humans know from experience.

Any attempt to dramatize, to act out, this theology is thus going to result in something that seems false, unreal and inhuman. Capable actors will resist this.

We've already seen this dynamic at work in Left Behind: The Movie. Brad Johnson is a capable actor who seems determined to overcome the script he has been given by portraying Rayford Steele as a real, flesh-and-blood human being. In his first, brief scene as Rayford he thus conveyed not just Rayford's dislike for his wife and her brand of religion, but also the guilt he felt as a consequence of having such feelings toward his own wife. We haven't had the slightest glimpse of Hattie Durham yet, but we've already seen enough of Rayford's self-loathing to realize that this is a man who is contemplating an affair.

None of this was true of the Rayford Steele we met in the pages of the book. In the novel, Rayford was not allowed to feel guilt or remorse or the pangs of conscience until after his conversion. The unsaved, in L&J's book, are reprobate and without conscience. They have to be such in order to seem to deserve all of the vicious punishments the book's God has planned for them. And they have to be so in order for the book's readers to be able to enjoy and savor seeing them punished.

Yet with Johnson in the role of Rayford Steele, capable acting seems to correct Bad Theology. Just by doing the job responsibly and portraying Rayford as a real human being, Johnson makes a kind of theological assertion: non-RTCs are human too. Simple, workmanlike acting winds up undermining a central theological premise of the book.

I'm afraid that something like the reverse of that seems to be happening with Kirk Cameron's role in LBTM. He agrees with the theology of L&J, and thus is incapable — both theologically and artistically — of portraying Buck as fully human.

But there's another larger problem for Cameron, another way in which his religious beliefs seem to be crippling whatever talents he may have as an actor. A 2003 Christianity Today profile — "The Rebirth of Kirk Cameron" — recounts his conversion to evangelical Christianity and the problems this created on the set of his TV series, Growing Pains:

"When he came back from [the summer hiatus in 1990], Kirk was very different," producer Steve Marshall told the cable series E! True Hollywood Story. "No practical jokes, very serious. If he wasn't in a scene, he'd go away." …

"He seemed kind of sad, and we thought that was odd for somebody who had found religion," adds Marshall. "Usually religion brings joy into a person's life, and he didn't seem very joyful."

As he got deeper into his faith, Cameron found himself wanting to be an even stronger role model in the public eye. He now objected to sexual innuendoes, such as a scene that actually depicted a bad dream his mother was having. Mike Seaver was to be in bed, without his shirt on, lying next to a beautiful girl. The writers wanted him to say the line: "Hey, babe. Good morning. By the way, what's your name again?" Immediately his mother, Maggie Seaver, would bolt up, wake from her nightmare, and be thankful it was just a dream.

"You didn't know it was a dream at first," says Cameron. "It was for shock value. At the time, I felt really uncomfortable with that." He told the producers, "Surely we can think of something else that would make Maggie break out into a sweat." …

Gung-ho about his newfound principles, Cameron began to further ostracize himself from the other cast members. He fell in love with his costar Chelsea Noble — an actress who also was a Christian — and they began spending their free time together. By the time they married in 1991, none of the Growing Pains cast members were invited to the ceremony.

Cameron became more concerned with being a role model than he was with his role because he had found a spiritual home in a branch of Christianity that had an almost entirely negative concept of virtue. According to this form of religion, being good means not doing certain things — not doing a lot of things, actually. And being really good, I suppose, means doing almost nothing.

According to this view, being morally good doesn't take any work. It's not something you have to learn, or study, or practice. It comes by fiat, through God's intervening grace. We saw this idea of moral goodness in the book Left Behind: say
the magic words and God w
ill transform you into a good person.

Once you embrace this notion of what it means to become and to be good morally, it tends to infect your notion of what it means and what it requires to be good at other things too. Evangelicalism's negative concept of virtue can thus be disastrous for the practice of any vocation that requires study and practice. Like, say, acting.

Here is the line from that CT profile that I found most shocking. This is where Cameron confesses that he doesn't believe or understand that virtue is a craft and craft is a virtue. Cameron describes his life before his conversion:

"There was this aching, empty feeling that left me very disillusioned with the business I was working in," he says. "What else was there? What else did I have to shoot for? I'd basically reached the top of the ladder, and I was 18."

He had "reached the top of the ladder," Cameron said. And he still seems to believe that this is true.

That's an astonishing thing for him to believe when you realize that at this same time he was being introduced to the newest member of Growing Pains' cast: Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now certainly DiCaprio's work as Luke Brower-Seaver, the show's Cousin Oliver, wasn't on the same level as the quality of work he would later go on to do, but he was already clearly a talented and committed actor. Just one year after Growing Pains was canceled he was astonishingly good in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, so I think it's safe to assume that he was already an obviously better actor than Cameron at the time they worked together.

So for at least one year of his professional life, then, Kirk Cameron was confronted, regularly, by an example of what a real actor his own age should look like. And yet he spent all that time on the same set with and in the same scenes as DiCaprio without apparently learning anything — without even seeming to realize that he needed to learn anything.

At some point, each of us has been in such a situation. Each of us has been engaged in some pursuit when we encountered someone demonstrably and immensely better than us at whatever that pursuit might be. When that happens we really have only two choices: We can give up and find some other activity to pursue, or we can shut up, take notes and learn as much as we can. What we cannot do in such a situation is what Cameron apparently did — continue deluding ourselves that we are at "the top of the ladder."

I don't want to rub this in too much, but just to clarify why I find this "top of the ladder" comment so astounding, try to imagine an alternate universe in which Mike Seaver and his adopted brother trade their future roles. Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio as Buck Williams. Now imagine Kirk Cameron as Arnie Grape, or Jim Carroll, or Romeo, or Amsterdam Vallon or Howard Hughes.

See what I mean?

Maybe Cameron wishes he had taken the time to learn more about the profession and the craft of acting from his more gifted or more experienced fellow cast members. Maybe he wishes he had tried to learn from DiCaprio the way DiCaprio has spent his career trying to learn from people like Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis and Cate Blanchett. I don't know.

But Cameron doesn't seem to appreciate that he ought to have done so, that he was ethically obliged to do so — that not doing so was, in fact, immoral. A sin.

Since I really do believe that Cameron's spiritual and artistic blindspots are inextricably related, my advice to him — unbidden and probably unwelcome — is intended to address both. That advice is simply this: Get off the set and get on the stage.

Cameron's most recent project, Fireproof — an RTC version of Rescue Me produced by the amateur film studio based at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. — was just about the worst thing he could have gotten involved with. He needs to get away from choosing projects based on the didactic content of the message (the classic distinction between art and propaganda, between storytelling and sermonizing) and he especially needs to get away from situations where he is the most experienced actor on the set. If he wants to get better, then he needs to surround himself with actors who are better than he is.

So Kirk — can I call you Kirk? — let me recommend Shakespeare.

Think regional festivals. Don't bother with Ontario or Oregon, not yet, but I'd bet there are plenty of smaller regional Shakespeare festivals that would be happy to give a former TV star a chance to try acting. You're a celebrity, so you won't have to start at the very bottom of the ladder, but you won't get to jump right in at the top either.

Try Horatio, or Lysander, or maybe even Claudio or Orlando. Then try working your way up to more challenging roles: MacDuff or Laertes or Edgar — better yet, Edmund. Take your time. Take other people's time. Learn what you have to learn. Learn what there is to learn.

So OK, then. I'm afraid that this blog is an altogether inappropriate forum for offering such advice with any hope that it might be heard or welcomed, but I needed to get that off my chest because I really do think it would be the best thing for Kirk Cameron as an actor and, yes, as a Christian. I really do believe that the negative virtue taught by L&J's anti-Antichristianity prevents him from growing as an actor, but I really do also believe that he might be capable of getting better. (He might actually not be bad as Orlando if he could recapture the charm he once displayed before restricting himself to reciting the words of LaHaye & Jenkins or to explaining how bananas disprove science.)

It doesn't need to be acting, mind you, any craft that requires patient study and practice — music, woodworking, needlepoint, card tricks — could also serve as a potential antidote for this negative virtue. But acting is where Cameron started and it's where he still imagines himself to be, so for him I think acting is probably the best place to start learning about the need for learning.

Virtue — being good, whether morally or artistically — isn't mainly about abstaining, but about learning and growing. That takes work, of course, but if you want to grow — as an actor, as a Christian, as a person — then you'll have to learn to deal with, yes, growing pains.

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