One by one, the summer flicks have faded from theater screens, entering the brief purgatory that precedes rebirth on video and cable television.
Most are forgotten sooner rather than later.
“The Thomas Crown Affair” was one typical piece of Hollywood eye candy, focusing on a filthy-rich hunk who commits crimes as a hobby and the femme fatale that stalks him. This was not the kind of movie that normally inspires discussions in a seminary or in churches.
Then again, this steamy thriller featured a star-turn performance by 40-something actress Rene Russo, a born-again Christian who bared both her emotions and her body. It raised serious issues for believers who frequent pews and Bible studies in Hollywood.
“I see no sign that the questions she raised are going to go away anytime soon,” said evangelical theologian Robert Johnston, who teaches the “Theology and Film” course at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “Movie people always have a lot to talk about, when they get together to discuss the issues that affect Christians who work in this town. But it seems like somebody always asks: ‘Would you ever do a nude scene?’ It’s such a symbolic question.”
Russo faced this agonizing issue during promotional interviews, explaining that she spent hours in prayer and turned to a therapist. She discussed her role as wife and mother. She described her charismatic, slain-in-the-Holy Spirit conversion as a teen and her return to faith as an adult in Bible classes at the famous Church on the Way in Van Nuys.
The ultimate issue, she said, was not nudity. “I don’t know where in the Bible it says, ‘Don’t be nude in a motion picture,’ ” she told Los Angeles magazine. The question was whether she should, as a Christian, accept the challenge of playing a fictional character that is amoral, manipulative and, at times, plain old nasty.
“It was like, whoa, this is a woman who totally leads with her sex,” said Russo. “Here is a character who is European. She doesn’t know if she has her top on or not. She doesn’t care. She is a different kind of woman and it’s not who I am. And it was really scary for me.”
This line of defense only raises more questions. Would her critics have approved if she played the same amoral, sexy character, yet managed to keep more of her clothes on? Why?
What if she played the same role, but allowed the use of an anonymous “body double” to take her place in nude scenes?
Or how about this somewhat theoretical question: What if a Hollywood director asked Russo to play a loving wife, shown in a romantic nude scene with an actor playing the role of her husband, in a film that defended faith and virtue? Was nudity acceptable in the wedding-night scene in “Braveheart”?
Meanwhile, asked Johnston, why aren’t moral conservatives asking as many tough questions about roles that involve other deadly sins? Can Christian artists depict war criminals, tyrants, bigots and crooks? Should a Christian actress think twice about playing Lady Macbeth?
This behavior issue leads to another question: If it is wrong for religious believers to play these kinds of characters, especially in nude scenes, is it just as wrong for other religious believers to watch these entertaining images in theaters or at home?
“We get so upset about issues of nudity and sex in art and entertainment, while issues of violence and killing don’t seem to bother us as much,” he said. “We Protestants, in particular, have a special problem with body and with images of the body. This affects painting and dance and theater, as well. … Meanwhile, Rene Russo is right on target when she said that the real question was the behavior of her character.”
The actress admitted that her choice raised disturbing questions. She told USA Today that she soon developed a spiritual answer for this essentially spiritual question.
“Did I do the right thing?”, asked Russo. “I always say to Christians who say I’m wrong, ‘Well, you know what? Pray for me. Just pray for me.’ “