Make a list of the most controversial films ever released. Go ahead, I'll wait. Done? OK, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is on your list, right? If it isn't, go back and add it. I don't care where. I mean, top 10, for sure. You can't name 10 movies that were more controversial than The Last Temptation of Christ. Don't make me laugh. Remember the hubbub it caused? Of course you do.
Anyway, the point is, it came out on August 12, 1988, and that was 25 years ago this week, and You're Old®.
Scorsese had run into a few mild controversies in his career (like the time his eyebrows broke free from his forehead and killed a man), but nothing compared to the religious rhubarb that erupted over this depiction of the life of Jesus. Skittish theater chains, unnerved by protests and threats of boycotts, refused to book it. Blockbuster Video (an ancient emporium that rented what were known as "videotapes" in those days) wouldn't carry it. When the Venice Film Festival announced that The Last Temptation of Christ would play there, Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his own film from the program, describing Scorsese's movie as "truly horrible, completely deranged." (At least Zeffirelli had actually seen it, or said he had, which separated him from nearly everyone else who objected to it.)
What was so upsetting about the movie? You might watch it and wonder the same thing. It begins with a disclaimer that would seem to forestall any complaints: "This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration [i.e., the novel The Last Temptation of Christ] of the eternal spiritual conflict." In other words: "We're not saying this is what the real Jesus really thought and said and did! We're just playin' a game of 'what if?'"
The film depicts Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Messiah, the savior of the world and a sinless man -- so far, so good, blasphemywise. But it also emphasizes Jesus' mortal, human side. He has passions, frustrations and doubts. He doesn't sin, but he feels imperfect emotions like anger and self-loathing. He's uncertain at first what God wants him to do, and once he's no longer uncertain, he wants very much not to do it.
His final test -- his "last temptation," if you will -- comes when he's on the cross. He fantasizes that he saves himself from his torment, marries his prostitute gal pal Mary Magdalene, and lives out a normal life. It's an alternate history, like at the end of the last Twilight movie. This sequence includes a moment where he and Mary have sex -- after they're lawfully wedded, so it's totally kosher, but still, many Christians are offended by the very idea of Jesus participating in carnal activities, even in his imagination.
But the objections to the movie couldn't have been based on its content anyway, as they started before Scorsese ever shot a frame of it. The much-banned novel it was adapted from had been around since 1953; its author, Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote Zorba the Greek), had been excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church over it. Scorsese, whose Catholicism had often factored into his work, had first tried to make a film version in 1983, and he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling Christian fundamentalists who wrote letters of protest to Paramount and got it canceled. (Sting was going to play Pontius Pilate!) When Scorsese succeeded in making the film for Universal a few years later, more letter-writing campaigns and public demonstrations resulted, more fervent now that the movie actually existed.
One wealthy evangelist offered to reimburse the studio for its costs in exchange for the film negative. He literally wanted to erase the movie from off the face of the Earth. Where was he when the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean came out??
Christian evangelists were a big deal at the time. Scandal-plagued TV preachers like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts kept the subject in the news and on people's minds, while the still-reputable ones (Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, etc.) had large audiences and loved talking to TV news reporters about current events.
Usually protests only draw extra attention to the things they're trying to suppress. But while Last Temptation made headlines for weeks in the summer of 1988, and despite good reviews from critics who'd actually seen it, the added publicity didn't translate into dollars. It never played any wider than 125 screens, and its final box office haul was about $8.7 million. It remains one of the lowest grossing films of Martin Scorsese's career. Which is a shame, because that means we'll never get a sequel.
When The Last Temptation of Christ was released, on August 12, 1988:
- It only opened in nine theaters, so it didn't place high in the box office rankings. But it earned an average of $44,500 per screen, which was huge. New in wide release that weekend were Young Guns (which came in first), Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Clean and Sober and Mac and Me. The top 10 also featured Cocktail, Die Hard, A Fish Called Wanda, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, Midnight Run and Big.
- Hey, speaking of controversial religious events, you know what happened the day before The Last Temptation of Christ opened? Osama bin Laden officially formed Al-Qaeda. And speaking of that part of the world, a week later, the Iran-Iraq War officially ended, eight years after it began. The Middle East was an unstable region in those days, not at all like it is today.
- It was an election year in the United States. In July, the Democrats officially nominated Michael Dukakis for president, with Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate. Later in August, the Republicans chose the ticket of George H.W. Bush (who was vice president at the time) and Dan Quayle (who was a gift to late-night talk show monologues).
- Celebrity offspring Rumer Willis, basketball player Justin Lin, and actress Alexa Vega were all within days of emerging from their respective wombs. Writer Raymond Carver had recently died, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat died on this day, and car maker Enzo Ferrari would die two days later.
- Yo! MTV Raps had just premiered on MTV, while the syndicated Solid Gold had just finished its eight-year run. N.W.A.'s album Straight Outta Compton was new in stores.
- On the radio, Steve Winwood's "Roll with It" was in the middle of its four-week run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Cheap Trick's "The Flame" and Richard Marx's "Hold Onto the Nights" had recently been number-one hits. Also big that week: "Hands to Heaven" by Breathe, "Make Me Lose Control" by Eric Carmen, "I Don't Wanna Go on with You Like That" by Elton John, and "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard.