Opinions That Count for a Lot

Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer

When writer-director Henry Bean left the Sundance Film Festival in January, he floated out of Utah on a cloud of expectation. His film, "The Believer," a controversial but powerful examination of a young Jewish neo-Nazi agitator-based on a true story-had won the Grand Jury Prize, and companies such as Paramount Classics, Miramax and USA Films swirled around, apparently poised to purchase it for distribution.

Three months later, every major distributor has passed on the film, which now seems destined for cable. For that, Bean and producer Susan Hoffman blame-in part-the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

"Just as the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay its eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys," says Bean, paraphrasing poet William Blake. "The minute that guy Cooper [Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center's assistant dean] walked into the room, I knew I should have just taken my tape and gone home. I knew that no good was going to come out of showing this film to this person."

In fact, though, the filmmakers initially were keen to have Cooper and his associates at the center see the film following Sundance. One of Hollywood's most popular charities, the Wiesenthal Center-run by Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier-has often been courted by Hollywood to show outreach screenings of such Jewish-themed films as "Sunshine." Miramax showed the center's staffers "Life Is Beautiful" before release in order to garner their ideas on marketing the film, while Steven Spielberg premiered "Schindler's List" at the center's Pico Boulevard headquarters, even installing a special sound system in its theater for the event.

The debate over "The Believer" is a reflection of Hollywood's increasing disinclination to take on controversial material, and its complicated relationship with special-interest groups, which the studios-savvy after firestorms over such films as "The Last Temptation of Christ'-alternately try to rebuff and enlist into their marketing campaigns.

"Every pressure group has a lobby, and Hollywood is easily buffaloed by these lobbies," says one former studio head who asked to remain anonymous. "The studios try to co-opt the groups by involving them early in the process because that's the right thing to do, and if you involve them early, you're hoping that you're not going to have war on your hands. Then often changes are made, and censorship happens."

In the aftermath of Sundance, "The Believer's" filmmakers hoped an endorsement by the center would boost their chances of getting picked up for distribution. But when a member of the publicity department of Paramount Classics-a potential distributor-called the Wiesenthal Center to gauge the reaction, the publicist heard an earful.

"I'm not a film critic, but this film did not work," says Cooper, who describes himself as the center's point person on cultural issues. He watched the film with eight other center employees and their wives-people of all ages and genders. "I didn't walk away from the film understanding what motivated the young man [the neo-Nazi]. I was also very troubled by the lengthy scene of the desecration inside the synagogue, especially what appeared to me as the ripping of the Torah scroll," Cooper says.

As Hoffman recalls, "Their [the center's] official position was, 'We won't oppose the movie.' Then this rabbi [Cooper] went on a crusade. He said all these sort of hyperbolic things about the movie."

There's no doubt that Bean, the screenwriter of "Internal Affairs" and a Jew who's married to a rabbi's daughter, intended the film to be provocative. "It says stuff in public that Hollywood doesn't ever say," Bean says. "I think that love is a more complicated emotion than we usually admit. In the mixture it has a touch of hate, and without that hate, the love itself loses its vitality. There's a tremendous expression of hatred of religion in the film. In my opinion, that's a necessary part of expressing the love. Not everybody sees it that way."

Cooper is adamant that neither he nor anyone else at the center has been trying to stop release of "The Believer."

"We're not the Jewish Thought Police," he says. "There's no campaign against this film. It's not our way. But if someone asks me what I think about this film, I'm going to tell them."

And Paramount Classics, a division of Viacom, is equally insistent that Cooper's remarks had nothing to do with squelching any potential deal. Indeed, according to one executive, who asked not to be identified, the studio's decision had much more to do with the general difficulty of marketing controversial material. Films like "The Believer" require labor-intensive marketing so their message isn't misconstrued by the public, and the studio simply didn't want to devote the resources, the executive notes.

Special-interest group lobbying often works, from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation campaign against the Dr. Laura Schlessinger TV show-recently canceled after receiving unrelenting negative publicity and low ratings-to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' victory in pressuring Disney into sponsoring an educational program about dog adoption at the "102 Dalmatians" premiere.

The Wiesenthal Center, which also runs a nationwide tolerance-education program and is building a $120-million Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, is particularly interwoven into the fabric of Hollywood. Since the center's inception, its fund-raising operation has drawn heavily from the film community. Indeed, a list of honorees of center fund-raising dinners reads like the Vanity Fair power list, and includes such media moguls as Ron Meyer, Gerald Levin and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as Paramount executives Jonathan Dolgen and Sherry Lansing. (According to a well-placed source, neither had seen "The Believer" when the decision was made to pass on it.)

Hier is perhaps the only rabbi in the country with two Oscars, for producing the Holocaust-themed documentaries "Genocide" and "The Long Way Home." His Oscars are displayed in a glass case in his office, alongside a collection of photographs of himself with world leaders, and a baseball autographed by Yogi Berra. The center also has a film division, Moriah Films, devoted to producing documentaries about Jewish history. Hier has served as a consultant on the World War II miniseries "War and Remembrance," DreamWorks' animated "The Prince of Egypt" and "Schindler's List."

When Hollywood denizens get in trouble, Hier occasionally speaks out on their behalf. After Spielberg was attacked for shooting "Schindler's List" in Auschwitz, Hier defended the director. And when Marlon Brando was criticized for saying on "Larry King Live" that Hollywood was "run by the Jews" who don't show negative stereotypes of their own culture while permitting them of other ethnic groups, he looked to Hier and Cooper for counsel and, he hoped, approbation.

"He started to speak Yiddish to me," recalls Hier, who met with the actor at the home of Brando's business manager. "Then he said to me, 'I was a supporter of getting the Jews to Palestine. After the war [World War II], I was arrested as an operative for the Irgun [a Jewish military organization] in Italy. I was smuggling arms in my car that were going to Palestine.'

"He [Brando] was very angry [on the Larry King show] and said something very, very stupid. If you ask me, how does it sound? It sounds like someone who uses the same words of those who hate Jews. But his background, his profile is not the profile of someone who hates Jews." Hier decided he didn't "believe this man is an anti-Semite" and announced it publicly.

The center's stature in the community is such that even "unofficial" comments can be taken as edicts. For example, prominent documentarian Errol Morris ('The Thin Blue Line') says a representative of the center tried to pressure the L.A. County Museum of Art into canceling a screening of his film "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." LACMA nonetheless screened the documentary about a prominent Holocaust denier.

"It would be very, very difficult to see how anyone could ever imagine that this movie provided aid and comfort to Holocaust deniers," says Morris. "The very thought of that in this case is ridiculous. There's an argument that's advanced all the time that this sort of thing should be ignored. . . . I call it the 'water under the door point of view.' This stuff leaks into our consciousness and, left unanswered, it becomes a stain on the world, and the important thing is to bring this stuff into relief and answer it and address it. Was the way to deal with Hitler to ignore him or to address the problem?"

Richard Trank, executive producer of Moriah Films, insists the center never tried to coerce LACMA into dropping the film. He says a junior center staff member happened to mention to a museum employee what Cooper had said publicly about "Mr. Death."

"We would never have taken a position where we would tell another institution not to show something or organize a boycott. I would have a problem with anyone doing that here," Trank said.

Still, Cooper and others at the center did have strong reservations about the film, according to Trank: "They were concerned that Leuchter was basically shown to be sympathetic, a character that you could feel sorry for, rather than this major Holocaust revisionist."

Yet Morris, whose hyper-real style often evokes a surreal blend of sympathy and disgust, says that the center's actions "hurt my feelings. I am Jewish and I find Holocaust denial deeply offensive but also deeply interesting. I believe that examining it in turn is an important thing to do."

While Hier defends the center's right to self-expression, he is also extremely media-savvy, as well as a film lover. He believes that religious groups should be judicious about brandishing their views. "We have the right to expect that people should act responsibly, but if at every minute we're going to do that kind of thing, we cross the line of the 1st Amendment. Most movies-whether they're R-rated or mild-are entertainment. If we become puritans, it forces our point of view on a greater society, and that's problematic."

In the case of "The Believer," Hier stresses that "Rabbi Cooper was asked [to see it]" and adds that his son, who also saw the film, said, " 'It wasn't so bad.' He would have used it in his work-he teaches youngsters."

There are other projects Hier questions, such as Jodie Foster's plans to film and star in a biopic about Leni Riefenstahl, the talented-and glamorous-Nazi-sympathizing director of "Triumph of the Will." 'What she says about Leni Riefenstahl is nonsense," says Hier, who's only read Foster's comments in the press. "If you start to say this is a fantastic woman, far ahead of herself, it sounds like you're going to gloss over what is a major flaw in her life, that she sold Nazism to millions of people. Not only did she sell it, but also she delighted in selling it!"

Foster has been tight-lipped about her plans, but in an interview with this reporter for a book last year, she delighted in the fact that the film would be controversial while making it clear she didn't intend to whitewash Reifenstahl's crimes. "I want to make a movie that makes people better and not worse, that helps other artists to make choices that were different from hers," she said. "Just because you're talented doesn't excuse you. When you look at history, it would be easy to say she is potentially, if she isn't, the greatest female filmmaker of all time. So it's a shame, a damn shame."

While free expression is a cornerstone of American society, controversy is increasingly a pariah in Hollywood's corporate culture. Special-interest group lobbying contributes to and occasionally justifies Hollywood's new climate of risk aversion, as studios increasingly shun talk-provoking films. For instance, Miramax sold the provocative Kevin Smith religious satire "Dogma" to Lions Gate in 1999 rather than distribute its own film. And last week, Miramax arranged for "O', a high school retelling of Shakespeare's "Othello" (which, like the play, ends in a blood bath), to be released by Lions Gate as well. Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" ended up on the cable channel Showtime.

Indeed, cable seems more and more the likely destination for headline-grabbing fare. The probable home of "The Believer" appears to be Showtime, another division of Viacom.

"They have a different agenda, and a different strategy for dealing with subscribers," says Hoffman. She quotes Showtime's "No Limits" slogan and adds, "Cable wants provocative material because they want to set themselves apart from regular networks."

While initially Bean was furious with the center, he now takes a measured view. "My interpretation of what happened is that the studio determined that the upside of the movie in no way equaled the potential downside. In terms of how much money could they make? Maybe a few million bucks. The downside was the studio gets smeared with some horrible reaction from Jewish organizations. The studios are in the business of being careful."

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