For, Friday, July 19, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Just in time for Utah’s 24th of July celebration it seems appropriate to look back at some of the movies that portray members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or, as I like to say, the church formerly known as ‘Mormon’). This feature story was published in the Deseret News on Feb. 25, 1993, with an art head reading ‘Cinema Saints: How Mormons are portrayed in Hollywood,’ and a headline and deck reading ‘Stereotypes: Movies generally show Mormons as latter-day quaints: Striking number of films portray church and Utah as backward, bizarre, hypocritical — or idyllic.’

TAKE ONE: Phoebe Cates and Tim Roth play friends who used to have a romantic relationship in “Bodies, Rest & Motion,” a romantic comedy that played in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January and which will be released later this year.

The story is set in a small Arizona town and in the opening scene Cates and Roth are teasing each other. At one point Roth talks about hitting the road for Butte, Mont., and Cates points out that they’ll have to drive through Utah. “There’s no good radio in Utah. It’s all religious programs.”

They then paint a fictional scenario that has Roth being picked up by the Utah Highway Patrol for drunken driving. “The judge is Mormon,” Cates says. “You get 15 years!”

TAKE TWO: In the HBO TV comedy series “Dream On,” an episode from last year has Brian Benben’s character finding himself physically attracted to his first cousin, played by Helen Slater. To his surprise, Slater returns his affection.

But, wracked by guilt after a kiss, Slater mutters, “This is not good. This is not healthy.”

Benben replies, “This is not legal! Except maybe in Utah.”

TAKE THREE: The eccentric, counter-cultural on-the-road tale “Roadside Prophets,” which played in theaters last summer, has a moment where the protagonist (John Doe) enters a Nevada “Motel 9.”

The man behind the desk is apparently composing a birthday poem for his young son and has a birthday gift on his lap, though we can’t see what it is. Doe asks if there is a casino nearby. “We don’t go in for that kinda stuff around here,” the man behind the desk says. “We’re Mormons.”

He then stands up, revealing that the gift for his son is a rifle.

TAKE FOUR: Last month, a notorious episode of “Picket Fences,” which did not air locally, had as its main plot a teenage girl in high school discovering she is pregnant.

For two-thirds of the show, which is set in the fictional town of Rome, Wis., the audience is led to believe that the girl is involved in an incestuous relationship with her father. An early scene has her discussing abortion with a friend and saying sarcastically, “You know my father, the Latter-day Saint. Abortion is a mortal sin in our church. Plus, my father would disown me.”

Eventually, after he is charged with incest, it is revealed in court that the girl’s “father” is actually her husband. He is a polygamist and she is his second wife.

The defense attorney explains, “My client is a Mormon.” But Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston) says in chambers, “Mormons don’t practice polygamy anymore. The church has condemned it.”

The polygamist replies,  “The Church was forced to condemn it, by federal law. Otherwise the whole religion would have been banned. There’s still a lot of Mormons that believe in polygamy. And I’m one of them!”


Hollywood deals in stereotypes. Ask a lawyer, doctor, psychiatrist, policeman or stockbroker how they feel about the way their professions are portrayed in movies and on television, and they’ll likely say the same thing — Hollywood never gets it right.

Or in the case of ethnic stereotypes, ask American Indians or Asians or Jews — or women — the same question.

Similarly, culture and religion are frequently misrepresented, whether for the sake of a plot device or a one-line gag.


Phoebe Cates, Tim Roth, 'Bodies, Rest & Motion' (1993)

After all, movies generally have only two hours to tell their stories, and the easiest cinematic tactic is to deal in images that evoke and immediate, recognizable response. Whether or not that response is accurate or deserved.

In the case of Christian religions, Catholics are the most frequently maligned, and certain other groups — the Amish, for example — are sometimes portrayed as broadly exaggerated types.

But it’s surprising how often “Mormons” crop up. Whether they are actually supposed to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ex-Mormon fundamentalists or merely members of Utah’s “culture.” And, yes, that oldest of old saws, polygamy, is still the most common element.

In some ways, movies have come full circle in the portrayal of Mormons. In the earliest days of film, the silent era, the polygamous stereotype was often used as either a joke or a stock villain.

But in the 1930s Hollywood developed a censorship code, which decreed, among other things, that religion could not be defamed. So, Mormon in the movies took on a new image — stoic pioneers.

Then, when the Production Code began to break down in the ’50s, religion became fair game. And in recent years, Mormons have once again become either jokes or stock villains.


TAKE FIVE: Kathleen Turner plays a woman who finds herself reliving her high school past in the 1986 film “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Late in the film she is attracted to a beatnik poet (Kevin O’Connor) who wants to run away with her after graduation. Where does he want to go? Utah.

“Utah?” says Turner. “What’s in Utah?”

“Rita,” O’Connor replies. “She’s got this great little cabin just outside the hills of Provo where she raises chickens. I’ll write and you two can take care of the chickens to support us.

“I can’t do that,” Turner responds.

“Why not?” asks O’Connor. “Polygamy’s legal in Utah.”

TAKE SIX: In an episode of the popular TV series “Cheers,” manager Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) sees a bouquet of flowers on the bar and after commenting on them finds herself in an obtuse conversation with bartender Sam (Ted Danson) and regular customer Norm (George Wendt):

“Oh, why can’t more men send flowers?” Rebecca laments.

Sam responds: “I didn’t know Mormons couldn’t send flowers.”

Rebecca: I said more men, not Mormons!”

Sam: “I know they can’t dance.”

Norm, interrupting: “No, Sammy, that’s the Amish.”

Sam, to Rebecca: “Why can’t Mormons send flowers?”

Rebecca: They can!”

Sam: “Then what are you talking about?”

Rebecca: “I just wish someone would send me some damn roses!”

Sam: “Well why does it have to be a Mormon?”

Rebecca storms off and Sam adds, “Some people you just can’t discuss religion with.”


               Ted Danson, Kirstie Alley, 'Cheers'

TAKE SEVEN: In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972), a caper-thriller starring Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw goes into a bar and is approached by a young soldier.

“Say, you wouldn’t happen to be a Mormon, wouldja?” he asks.

“No, I’m afraid not,” McGraw responds, chuckling.

“Me neither,” the soldier says. “I’m from Orem. That’s right near Salt Lake. There’s about 12 people in the state who aren’t Mormons and I’m one of ’em.”

TAKE EIGHT: “Without a Trace” (1983) stars Kate Nelligan as Susan Selky, a New York woman whose young son has disappeared. Eventually, her former baby sitter, a young man named Philippe (Keith McDermott), is arrested and charged with murdering the boy. A homosexual, he was convicted in Utah of child molestation. He tells Susan he is innocent and explains his past:

Philippe: “In Salt Lake City I fell in love with a college freshman. He was a music prodigy. His father was an elder of the church. When his parents found out about us they had me arrested for rape. I guess they figured if they changed what it was called they were changing what it was.”

Susan: “You pleaded guilty.”

Philippe: “If that surprises you, you don’t know much about Mormons or Utah.”


The first movie to depict Mormons was probably Thomas Edison’s nickelodeon film “A Trip to Salt Lake City” in 1905, a two-minute gag picture about a polygamous family aboard a train. His many children want drinks, so Dad comes up with a singular solution — a milk canister with dozens of straws.

More typical, however, were some 30 to 40 anti-Mormon propaganda films, such as the 1913 Hollywood production “A Mormon Maid” and the 1922 English film “Trapped By the Mormons.” While those two have survived, the others have, along with the majority of the silent era’s output, been lost due to film-stock deterioration. We may never see “The Mormon,” “A Victim of the Mormons,” “Marriage or Death” or “Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

In 1940, 20th Century Fox gave us “Brigham Young,” with Dean Jagger in the title role, though his character was somewhat subordinate to the romantic plot between a young pioneer couple (Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell; Vincent Price played Joseph Smith in early scenes). The film fictionalized history and gave a deliberate back seat to polygamy. (It has not been released on video.)

But the film’s historical contribution was in changing the Mormon persona over the next two decades. Now the perception was pioneers who demonstrated faith, determination and, yes, “family values.”

From major-studio productions shot on location in southern Utah, such as John Ford’s “Wagon Master,” to B-movies shot on a California back lot, Mormons became heroic figures.

Television, mostly through Western shows, helped perpetuate the image through the ’50s and ’60s in episodes of “Bonanza,” “Death Valley Days,” “Wagon Train” and “The Big Valley,” among others.

Then, in 1969, Josh Logan’s epic movie version of the stage musical “Paint Your Wagon” took some comic pokes at polygamy, and Mormons again became a joke. “They Call Me Trinity,” “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” and others in the ’70s kept it up.

And in the ’80s, Mormons in the movies again became either gag lines or villains. The latter included theatrical films like “Messenger of Death” (1988), about warring polygamist clans in Colorado, and such “based-on-a-true-story” TV vilms as “Deliver Then from Evil: The Taking of Alta View” (1992), about Richard Worthington’ assault on Alta View Hospital, and “In the Line of Duty: Siege at Marion” (1992), portraying the Singer-Swapp standoff in Summit County.

So, there is hope.

Maybe Hollywood doesn’t always get it wrong. Or if it does, maybe it isn’t always negative.


TAKE NINE: At the conclusion of “Raising Arizona” (1987), Nicolas Cage has a monologue as his character is dreaming about the future, where he sees an older version of himself and his wife, and they have many children and grandchildren:

“It seemed real. It seemed like us. And it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved. I dunno. Maybe it was Utah.”