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    Off the Wahl: The Big Guy in Film

    By Jan Wahl–

    Ever since I was a little girl, I loved me some God in the movies. Of course, I always wondered where the Goddess was … but we’ll save that for another column. From the first one I ever saw, The Ten Commandments (love that Yul Brynner Pharoah drag), to suffering Anthony Quinn in Barabbas, and from Jean Simmons and Richard Burton cuddling up in The Robe to the homoerotic Ben Hur, I just loved the pageantry and big, loud storytelling. Give me the parting of the Red Sea or an unhinged Caligula or chesty Victor Mature as Demetrius and I was always a happy camper.

    But then it all changed when I saw that movies could make satires out of religious ideas. The first awareness came with 1977’s Oh, God! When God appears as this nice old dude (George Burns) to an assistant grocery manager, the young innocent (John Denver) is chosen as the Almighty’s messenger on earth. Director Carl Reiner gets us involved and even rooting for the hapless guy as he tries to convince family, colleagues, and friends that he has met God. Burns as God was perfect casting, until a certain man with a magnificent voice came along.

    When Jim Carrey became Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman was actually God. I really liked the setup for this movie since I worked in a newsroom at the time and it tells of a downtrodden news reporter who doesn’t think God is doing a good job. He’s given a chance to try it himself to find out if he could do better. It is not the best of his films, but Carrey makes it work. 

    Does it get funnier or more satiric than The Life of Brian? Following Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the group was going to title it Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. Thinking that could alienate the devout, they changed the name and made it the innocent tale of a man who is mistaken for the Messiah. Loosely strung together by satirical sketches, this movie has one of my favorite endings in comedic history. Who knew we could whistle along with the crucifixion?  

    Director and screenwriter Kevin Smith was excited to make a movie based on his own Catholic upbringing. He was going to call it God, but changed the title to Dogma. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are two fallen angels who hope to use a loophole in Christian doctrine to get back into heaven. Agents of both heaven and hell try to stop them. This, as well as The Life of Brian, now enjoy cult status. 

    In 1941, an imaginative comedy fantasy came out: Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But, for once, I’m in love with the 1978 remake:  Heaven Can Wait. A young man (cowriter and codirector Warren Beatty) is mistakenly sent to heaven by his guardian angel.  He somehow finds his way back to earth to find blessed love with Julie Christie. It is the side characters that steal this one: Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin. The film still holds up as a charming love story.

    Through them all, my favorite is a documentary by Bill Maher, 2008’s Religulous. The master of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and Reel Time with Bill Maher takes us through his journey exploring the world’s religions. I recently asked Bill how he ever got this controversial but so brilliant movie made. He told me for the San Francisco Bay Times, “Religulous was almost impossible to get made and would never be done today. All of the studios thought it would cause them to be boycotted. Only Lionsgate Films had the courage to do it.”

    “People come up to me and say it made them flip on God,” Bill continued. “It’s easier to get people to flip on God than on Trump.”

    He added, “A slog of places still refuse to show it. It’s harder to find than an abortion in Texas.”

    Bill then thought of California’s own politics and said, “By the way, that entire recall of Newsom was insane. The idea that someone is lawfully elected and the other side doesn’t like it has to stop. Elections matter.”

    Speaking with Bill reminded me that he was The Advocate’s Person of the Year in 2006. He said, “I’ve championed LGBTQ rights and spoken out about them, always.” You can hear for yourself as he is on tour and will be at the Marin Center in San Rafael on September 25 and at the San Jose Civic on September 26. Both shows start at 8 pm. For more information: https://www.billmaher.com/

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on September 23, 2021