There are certain actors and musicians and other celebrities -- not many, but a handful -- who, solely because of their religious beliefs and the way they choose to express them -- I can no longer stand to watch.
And I'm not sure if I'm okay with that. I'm trying to parse out the difference between religious bigotry (which I have serious problems with), and being grossed out by someone's ideas and opinions and general demeanor (which seems pretty reasonable). Then you add in the whole "should an artist's personal beliefs affect your opinion of their art, and if so, how and to what degree" question... and the whole thing gets very complicated indeed.
The most obvious example of this, for me, is Tom Cruise. I used to like Tom Cruise a fair amount: my take on him was that he did a lot of dreck, but when he sunk his teeth into a decent script and got a director who didn't give a shit about his boyish charm, he could do seriously good work. I found him compelling in "Eyes Wide Shut," I thought he was the one genuinely interesting thing about "Rain Man" (a movie that I generally loathed), and his performance in "Magnolia" was nothing short of masterful. I knew he was a Scientologist, and I found that ooky.... but if you refuse to see any movies or TV or music made by Scientologists, you'd be pretty cut off from American popular culture. So I managed to not care about it all that much.
But ever since his fabled series of icky Scientological outbursts, I've been unable to look at his smug little face without feeling nauseous. If I'm flipping channels and come across "Jerry Maguire" or "Interview with the Vampire" -- movies I used to like a fair amount -- I now just keep on flipping. I have a moment of thinking, "Oh, yeah, I like that movie, I could watch that for a while"... and then I remember that Tom Cruise is in it, and I flinch, and I walk on by.
Another example is Mel Gibson. I never liked him as much as I liked Tom Cruise... but I've always cited the first "Lethal Weapon" movie in my list of "action movies with some genuine substance," and I always remembered that he used to be a real actor, back in the days of "Gallipoli" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." He pretty much had already lost me with the "open incitement to gay- bashing" that was "Braveheart," not to mention his other examples of vile homophobia... but the grotesquery of "The Passion of the Christ," and his drunken anti-Semitic rant, have made me unable to contemplate his visage without wanting to yak.
And finally, before I move on: Ben Stein. Again, it's not like I loved the guy. I knew, for instance, that he was a rabid anti-choice advocate, not to mention a speechwriter for Nixon, and any project he was at the center of (like that show "Win Ben Stein's Money"), I would have no truck with it. But if he had a bit part in some movie, I could cope. Now, ever since he got involved in the "Expelled" fiasco, I can't. I can't even see his face without being viscerally repulsed. I've never seen "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and now I think I probably never will.
And I'm trying to figure this out.
The thing is... it's not really consistent. There are plenty of actors/ musicians/ other celebrities and artists with religious beliefs I find appalling or just silly, and I can enjoy their work with a minimum of retching. John Travolta, for instance. I know that he's a big-time Scientologist. I don't love this fact. But it doesn't get in the way of my enjoying "Pulp Fiction" or "Primary Colors." And I didn't stop watching "The Simpsons" when I found out that Nancy Cartwright was a Scientologist.
So what's the difference?
For me, a lot of it is how hard-core the icky religious beliefs are. John Travolta, for instance, is a pretty high- profile Scientologist -- he even made that stupid L. Ron Hubbard sci-fi movie -- but he also apparently does that inconsistent compartmentalization thing that drives atheists nuts when we're debating believers but that also makes peaceful co-existence possible. (Scientology has pretty strict strictures against homosexuality... and yet Travolta made "Hairspray." And has insisted in interviews, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Scientology isn't really homophobic. Which makes me want to smack him across the head and scream, "It is so!"... but given a choice between a believer who submerges their own moral compass and lets it be subsumed by their religion, and a believer who relies on their own functioning moral compass and tries half-assedly to contort their religion around it, I'll take the latter any day.)
But a lot of the difference is how central someone's icky religion is to their public persona. Nancy Cartwright, for instance, hasn't become the central spokesmodel in a documentary about how criticism of Scientology is de facto bigoted censorship, the way Ben Stein did. She hasn't produced a movie putting the vilest aspects of Scientology on gruesome display as if they were something to be proud of, the way Mel Gibson did. And when I've seen her do interviews, she doesn't talk at length about Scientology and how it proves that psychiatry is a fraud. She talks about The Simpsons.
I'm not sure that's fair, though. Is it really right to punish consistency and adherence to one's ideals, and to reward fickleness and crass "I don't want to piss off the public" pragmatism? This is a question I often face with religion, and I haven't yet come to any resolution about it.
And my list of "flaws that make me retch irrevocably and that I can tolerate" is definitely not fair or rational. Why will icky religious opinions turn me off an artist now, in the same way that icky opinions about women or homosexuality have done for a long time? It's probably nothing more than the fact that I'm thinking about religion more these days. And that's not being consistent, either.
Of course, part of this issue, as Ingrid points out, isn't about how gross the religious beliefs are. It's about how gross the people's behavior is about those beliefs. It's not just that the beliefs of Cruise and Gibson and Stein are repugnant; it's that they've behaved so repugnantly about them, in ways that are dishonest and hateful and contemptuous of others. And that's going to turn me against somebody, regardless of anything to do with religion. As an example in the other direction: Right now, pretty much my favorite band in the world is Low. The members of Low are Mormons. I have pretty strong negative feelings about the Mormon religion, both its tenets and its organization. And yet, I don't transfer those negative feelings onto Low... because to the best of my knowledge, they aren't jerks about their faith. (The last time I saw them play, they used the word "shit" and said they wanted to kill George W. Bush, which makes me [a] like them and [b] think that whatever their religious beliefs are, it's not your garden- variety Mormonism. Of course, I've found myself shying away from finding out more about the detail's of Low's religious beliefs, for this very reason -- because I don't want to find out something that's going to make me dislike them -- but that's a topic for another post.)
But the problem with that -- the problem with this whole snarly issue, in fact -- is that, as a general theoretical principle, I do think that critique and appreciation of art should usually be separated from opinions about the artist. It's not always possible, and I can think of instances where it's not even desirable... but on the whole, I think it's a goal worth reaching for. It's different when the artist in question is still alive -- when it comes to Wagner, for instance, there's not that soiled, complicit feeling you get from knowing that your money is financing an anti-Semitic creep. But as a rule, I think that rejecting art because you don't like the opinions of the artist is an inhibiting minefield at best, and a serious missing of the point at worst. One of the whole points of art is that it opens your mind to different ways of seeing the world... and that doesn't work if you're only willing to be opened to perspectives you already agree with.
But the thing is? This "I can't stand to watch Tom Cruise" thing isn't a carefully considered ethical and aesthetic choice. It's an emotional response. Even if I came to the conclusion that my visceral rejection of Tom Cruise wasn't fair and I should simply assess him on the basis of his work... I'd still flip past "Jerry Maguire" on the TV with a shudder and a desire to take a shower. The stomach has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. And life is too short to spend watching actors who make me want to retch. There are plenty of actors who don't. I can live a rich, full life without ever seeing another Tom Cruise movie again.
I do think it's sort of a shame, though. I'd like to see "Gallipoli" or "Magnolia" again. I'd like to see "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" someday. I don't like feeling cut off from entire avenues of art and popular culture just because some of the people involved are jackasses with creepy religious beliefs.