Date written: 9 October 2002
Well, P.T. Anderson isn't exactly a household name like Steven Spielberg or even Peter Jackson. But "Punch-Drunk Love" is getting some wildly enthusiastic reviews (as well as some harsh criticism) from early reviewers. Many seem to really, really like it, including the influential Ebert and Roeper, who gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up. You WILL be hearing more about this movie.
Adam Sandler (yes, that Adam Sandler) is getting rave reviews as an ACTOR in this surprisingly violent and dramatic comedic love story. Sandler's character is the only brother of seven sisters. But, no, despite his many siblings he's NOT the Mormon character. The villain, played by Anderson regular actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a profane-mouthed businessman who runs a matress company and a corrupt phone sex business, all based in Provo, Utah. When Sander foolishly calls the service and gives them his credit number, and then decides to no longer use the service, he angers Hoffman. Hoffman sends four goons after Sandler to attack him and rob him. The thugs are played Nathan Stevens, David Stevens, Jim Smooth Stevens and Michael D. Stevens, four Latter-day Saint brothers from Utah. I don't know what prompted Anderson go cast his goons this way. Maybe it's just another sign that Mormons are the "new gay" -- the newly hip minority that everybody wants to put in their movie, reality TV show or dance mix.
So... Mormons get to be the bad guys. Maybe and maybe not. From what I've heard, the "M" word is NOT uttered in the movie, and these are NOT "LDS characters." Certainly they don't do anything stereotypically LDS, and working as violent enforcers for a phone sex scam hardly seems like an appropriate profession for a practicing Latter-day Saint. So if you want to, you could say that, no, they are not Mormons, or at least they are not Latter-day Saints. On the other hand, P.T. Anderson's own website sports an early L.A. Times review that refers to the "four blond Mormon brothers from Utah who are the bane of Barry's existence... played by four Mormon brothers from Utah." And in the October 14th, 2002 issue of Newsweek features a review that tells how Sandler "will also make it to Utah to confront the extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has sent four menacing Mormon brothers to threaten his life..."
So if the movie doesn't call them Mormon, where are the reviewers getting the idea? Well, perhaps nowhere in particular, other than the fact that one of the most common mental definitions of "Mormon" as used by people outside Utah is "anybody from Utah." This is why some movie journalists referred to "Almost Famous" star Patrick Fugit as a "Mormon," even though he's never been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you drive five feet over the border from Nevada and pick up a rock, that is a "Mormon rock." If you life in Utah, you are a Mormon. Period. At least that is how perhaps most Americans think, when the word or question casually floats through their mind.
So are the bad guys in "Punch-Drunk Love" Mormons? Well, for the sake of argument let's say they that they are. Maybe not by our definition. But we're out-voted.
But before we think, "Oh no, not another stereotypical Mormon movie villain...", it is interesting to note that such a thing is actually quite rare. During the past sixty years Latter-day Saints have hardly ever been movie villains.
Of course Mormons have frequently been out-right villains in literature. Terryl L. Givens notes, in The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997):
The list of authors who resorted to the Mormon caricature as a stock villain spans genres from mystery to western to popular romance, and it includes both American and English writers: from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes mystery to Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, from Robert Louis Stevenson's The Dynamiter to Jack London's Star Rover, as well as scores of novels, short stories, and poems by lesser names.
20th Century science fiction writers have been far kinder than 19th Century writers. Even a cursory reading of the science fiction novels and stories with Mormon characters and references (300 are catalogued at http://www.adherents.com/lit/sf_lds.html) reveals that in science fiction and fantasy, Mormons are usually portrayed as sympathetic or admirable, or at least regarded neutrally. There are few Mormon villains in these works.
But when it comes to movies, you have to go pretty far back to the earliest days of movies to find a period during which we were actually stock villains. You had movies like "Trapped by the Mormons" (1922), "A Mormon Maid" (1917), "Deadwood Dick Spoils Brigham Young" (1915) and "The Mormon" (1912). "The Mormon Conquest" (1941) may have been one of the last movies from the early period to feature Mormons as villains.
After that, you get into a period of time during which Latter-day Saints are portrayed more favorably in movies. You've got the very favorable movie "Brigham Young: Frontiersman" (1940) directed by Henry Hathaway. John Ford's "Wagonmaster" (1950) is also very positive. In "Blood Arrow" (1958) a devout Mormon girl crosses Indian territory to obtain a needed smallpox serum for her settlement. "Paint Your Wagon" (1969) is pretty silly, but the Mormons are once again protagonists, including Jean Seberg as the leading lady, the Mormon woman pursued by both Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. No villain in the bunch. According to the Carole Mikita documentary "Latter-day Saints on the Silver Screen" (2002), a major factor in the lack of Mormon villains during this period was the Hayes Code, which prevented defaming religious clergy. The Hayes Code was established in 1930 and significant enforcement began in 1934. It was in place into the 1960s. During the Hayes period criticism of all religious groups was highly curtailed.
Even in the modern post-Hayes movie era, there have been very few Mormon villains in movies. There HAVE been plenty of Mormon characters, and most of them have been highly stereotypical and certainly inaccurate. But how many actual villains have there been?
For the sake of discussion we'll disregard movies in which a major character's Mormon affiliation is historical or can be implied from source material, but is not in any way identified in the movie. So we throw out Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Panther; Heavenly Creatures; Deep Impact; Somewhere in Time; The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper; Damnation Alley; etc. Besides, the "Mormon" in these is usually the protagonist, even if he or she is a criminal. (Nobody thinks bank robber Butch Cassidy was the "villain" in the Paul Newman/Robert Redford classic. Of course, most people don't know Butch is a Mormon, either.)
So, going backwards in time looking at feature films with overtly Mormon main characters...
"Ocean's Eleven" (2001) features Scott Caan and Casey Affleck as "Mormon brothers" from Utah who are part of a team of 11 people who rob a casino. Criminals? Well, yes, I suppose so. But the boys are definitely not villains. They're part of the team of protagonists. And the casino owner is the movie's villain. Sort of an amoral plot structure, but you root for the robbers. Although the brothers are idiosyncratic and a bit goofy, they are sympathetic and they are definitely not Mormon stereotypes.
"Goodbye Lover" (1999) is a mean-spirited movie in which Ellen DeGeneres, as a police detectives, voices plenty of rude and crude comments about the Mormon affiliation of her police partner, Detective Rollins, played by Ray McKinnon. The Mormon police detective isn't particularly sympathetic (partially because the protagonist makes fun of him so much) and he is stereotypical in a number of ways, but he's not at all a villain in the movie. Critics mostly disliked this movie (it has only a 33% positive review rating at RottenTomatoes.com), and it did less than $2 million at the box office. Message to Hollywood, or at least to Ellen: making fun of religious minorities does not ensure box office gold.
"Donnie Brasco" (1997) features Johnny Depp as an FBI agent whose boss is a Mormona and tells him not to swear. Based on a true story, which is probably why the movie characters is a Mormon -- the real person was. Once again, not a villain. Actually a pretty admirable character, although his presense in the movie is limited. Still, the chacacter is the basis for the track titled "Donnie & the Mormon" on the movie soundtrack by Patrick Doyle.
"Orgazmo" (1997). Yeah, this is the big one -- the movie that may have inspired some Latter-day Saint filmmakers to make movies about their own people so they could get it right. Trey Parker of "South Park" fame wrote, directed and starred in this "comedy" about a Latter-day Saint missionary in Los Angeles who becomes a porn star so he can pay for his temple wedding once he gets home. Could the whole thing have been averted if somebody had told Trey that there is no charge to get married in the temple? Probably not. Fortunately not too many people saw this critical dud - it's box office gross was just $582,024. Obviously the who idea is offensive. But the thinking behind it was "Who, in real life, is LEAST likely to be involved in the porn industry?" Answer: A Mormon missionary. One of those back-handed complement things. For the record, Parker has never been a member of the Church. He said: "I grew up in Colorado, so we had a lot of Mormons that we went to school with. Actually, my first girlfriend was Mormon. Every Mormon I've ever met is a great person, and to me this was a great character. I didn't go out of my way to make him give up his religion, like Joe's been stupid all this time. He remains a Mormon, he wins, he destroys evil, and stays a Mormon. The Mormons win."
"Messenger of Death" (1988). Chuck Bronson stars as Garret Smith, a journalist helping police investigate the murder of Orville Beecham's fundamentalist Mormon (polygamist) family. A serial killer is apparently killing members of the small sect which has broken off of the mainstream Church. The victims are Mormons (although not members of the mainstream Church), and the Chuck Bronson plays a non-LDS character. Certainly the movie portrays religious fanaticism and plays up the old polygamy thing, but is there a Mormon villain? I don't know. That depends on who the serial killer eventually is discovered to be.
"Melvin and Howard" (1980). About Howard Hughes (a billionaire) and Melvin Dummar, a Mormon gas station attendant. I haven't seen it and don't know to what extent, if any, the character's religious persuasion is mentioned in the movie. Mary Steenburgen won an Academy Award for playing Melvin's wife. As far as I know, this is one of only two Academy Awards that have been awarded to actors for playing a Mormon character. Melvin is the title character, and certainly not a villain.
"Jessi's Girls" (1975). Sondra Currie plays Jessica, a young Latter-day Saint woman whose husband is killed by a bunch of outlaws. Jessica is raped and left for dead in the desert. With the last ounce of her strength she gets to the hut of an old hermit who nurses her back to health and teaches her how to shoot. The woman then frees three female criminals and seeks vengeance on the outlaws. Not a family film, of course, and it would appear that Jessie bends the law in a few places, but she's the protagonist, not a villain.
"Advise and Consent" (1962). Henry Fonda is the movie's protagonist, playing "Robert Leffingwell", the president's candidate for Secretary of State. Prior to his approval, he must first go through a Senate investigation to determine if he's qualified. Leading the Senate committee is idealistic Senator Brigham Anderson, a Mormon from Utah, who soon finds himself unprepared for the political dirt that's revealed, including Leffingwell's past affiliations with a Communist organization. When Leffingwell testifies about his political leanings, he proves his innocence. Later, however, Anderson learns that he lied under oath and even asks the president to withdraw Leffingwell for consideration, especially after Senator Anderson begins receiving blackmail threatening to reveal that while he was in the military (prior to his marriage) he had a brief romantic relationship with another man. Senator Anderson probably gets more screen time than any other character in the movie. In fact, he is the most upstanding character in the film. Surrounded by politicians who continually compromise their values and act dishonestly, Senator Anderson refuses to abandon his idealism and integrity. Brigham Anderson is a complex character who has made mistakes in the past and makes some tragic mistakes in the present. In some ways Senator Anderson is the nemesis of the Henry Fonda character, but in no way can he be called a "villain."
And that's it. You can find some actual Mormon villains in a handful of TV/cable movies such "Deliver Them from Evil: The Taking of Alta View" (1992), "The Executioner's Song" (1982), and "Shot in the Heart" (2001). But as far as modern feature films go, I don't know of any.
Except for "Brigham City", of course. And we made that one ourselves.
In movies, are Latter-day Saints heroes or villains? Well, of course we have been both. But which position is predominant? Let's do the math.
For our sample, we are choosing ONLY 43 theatrically-released movies for which we have U.S. box office ticket sales data, and which can be classified. This generally restricts the list to the movies which have been most widely seen in the U.S. Also, these are ONLY movies in which Latter-day Saints/Mormons (or characters based on them) are MAJOR characters.
Characters who aren't really a hero or protagonist but are a supporting character are classified based on whose side they are on.
In 38 of the movies considered (88%), the Mormon/LDS characters are protagonists or heroes. Two of these movies have both a significant LDS villain as well as LDS protagonist. Only 4 of these 43 movies have no LDS/Mormon protagonist: only Mormon villains.
Keep in mind that 16 of these movies are LDS Cinema films -- theatrically-released films made by LDS filmmakers OUTSIDE the Hollywood studio system. These all feature LDS protagonists/heroes, but they do not truly represent how "Hollywood" portrays Mormons.
A key thing to keep in mind is that in many of these movies, the "LDS/Mormon major character" is not overtly identified as such. So the movie really isn't making any kind of comment about Latter-day Saints, either for good or ill. Historically, Butch Cassidy was a lapsed Latter-day Saint and D.B. Cooper was an active Latter-day Saint, but the movies featuring them don't acknowledge their religious affiliation in any way.
The Mormon villains in "Fletch", "Punch-Drunk Love", "Family Plot", and "One Night at McCool's" are never EXPLICITLY identified by name as Mormons. Really, the only movies on this list with characters who are explicitly identified as Latter-day Saints AND are villains are "Brigham City" and "Latter Days," and in both of these, the movie's central hero is ALSO a Latter-day Saint.
In "Latter Days" the LDS characters one could call "villains" are really better called "antagonist" characters. The GLBT missionary character who leaves his mission encounters disapproval from his missionary companion, his mother, and his Church leaders. But these LDS characters don't do anything criminal. They simply don't accept the main character's conversion to a GLBT lifestyle, putting them in the "angatonist" role from the central character's point of view.
A number of movies feature LDS/Mormon characters who are criminals, yet are the protagonists of the films they appear in: Panther (1995), Ocean's Eleven (2001), Ocean's Twelve (2004), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Heavenly Creatures (1995), Mean Creek (2004), The Work and the Story (2003), The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper (1981). Of these, the LDS/Mormon characters in "Ocean's Eleven", "Ocean's Twelve", "Mean Creek" and "The Work and the Story" are fictional; the others are based on real-life people.
I know there's a feeling that Latter-day Saints are frequently the butt of jokes and ridicule in movies. Yes, that has happened a lot. But mostly that is through one-liners and throwaway dialogue. Often these lines are actually back-handed compliments. There are characters we might not be happy about. I doubt many Church members would be pleased with the "adult" film star/superhero in "Orgazmo" or the goofy detective in "Goodbye, Lover." But If you consider the movies that have actually made it to theaters during the last 70 years (after implementation of Hayes Code), Mormons actually being held up as villains is extremely rare.
HERO/PROTAGONIST LDS/MORMON CHARACTER:
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