Bart: Defenders of the faith should stand at ease

Daily Variety, June 27, 1998
By Peter Bart

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - The most mail Daily Variety has received this year about a single article has come in response to a story that the newspaper will never run. The subject was Scientology and its influence on Hollywood.

The story was in the process of being researched by our film editor, Dan Cox, who recently left the paper to accept a job as a literary agent without finishing the article.

In approaching his story, Cox was impressed by the fact that the Scientologists, who've been around since the 1950s, were getting more "public'' about their faith: Witness the fact that John Travolta, a stalwart member, had agreed to star in a $70 million production of "Battlefield Earth,'' based on the book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Indeed, Travolta is just one of many high-profile Scientologists around, including Tom Cruise, Jenna Elfman, Kirstie Alley and director Milton Katselas, who teaches one of the town's best known acting classes.

Before deciding to switch careers, Cox also became intrigued by the fact that the Scientologists own at least four major buildings in Southern California, including an ornate, gothic Celebrity Center housed in a structure built by William Randolph Hearst; and a production complex that they operate in Hemet called the Golden Era Studios that makes promotional and educational movies. They even publish a magazine called Celebrity.

To be sure, Scientologists also run a drug rehabilitation program, a literacy campaign and other activities aimed at rehabilitating prison inmates.

Despite all their constructive causes, however, there's always been a certain acrimony between the media and Scientologists, stemming perhaps from their fervent proselytizing as well as from their obsession with their enemies.

But even Cox was surprised when several emissaries of Scientology, upon learning of his research, started paying visits to him and to the newspaper urgently demanding an audience.

And then came the letters, pouring forth from a variety of law firms. John Travolta did not decide to star in "Battlefield Earth'' to advance the cause of Scientology, said one document. Scientology had no role whatsoever in Tom Cruise's courtship of Nicole Kidman, said another. The financing of "Battleship Earth'' is in no way related to the Church of Scientology, said a third.

And then, of course, came the predictable dispatch from that ubiquitous attorney, Bert Fields, who decided to take time off from the Eisner-Katzenberg wars to issue a warning of his own.

"I have just heard that you intend to publish something to the effect that the Church of Scientology has used Nicole Kidman for promotional purposes without her approval,'' he wrote. "This is utterly false. Nicole has the greatest respect and admiration for the teachings of Scientology.''

The problem with all these admonitions is that they're taking issue with an article that no one has published or even finished writing, and didn't contain any of the allegations that were being refuted. Fields' curious militancy on Scientology was first registered a year ago when he paid to reprint in Variety an ad signed by several top Hollywood names.

The ad, signed by Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn, Terry Semel and Fields, among others, was an open letter to the German chancellor protesting discrimination against Scientologists in Germany and comparing their treatment to that of the Jews during World War II. (The comparison caused some ruffled feelings among many who felt that their case was overstated.)

Was this fusillade of legal letters really intended to clarify facts or to intimidate a reporter? In the past, certainly, the Scientologists have built up a reputation of being highly litigious. The net effect of their actions has been to increase suspicions rather than allay them. Why would any group be so militantly self-protective if it had nothing to hide?

Yet the Scientologists do a lot of good deeds, and people like John Travolta and Kirstie Alley testify with great persuasiveness that Scientology has aided them in meeting the demands of their daily lives.

"You've got a religion and a group whose aims are a world without war, crime or insanity,'' Travolta told Cox. "They're doing everything they can to make that possible.''

Scientologists deny that the church manipulates celebrities. They also refute the suspicions of outsiders about the manner in which Scientology members "audit'' others with E-meters as they strive to rid themselves of "body thetans'' so that they can become "clear.''

"We don't use celebrities; celebrities are serviced,'' insists Marty Rathbun, director of the Religious Technology Center of the Church. "They are important people because they reach a lot of people. They set trends in society.''

Hubbard's writings specifically targeted celebrities for recruitment. "Celebrities are well-guarded, well-barricaded, overworked, aloof quarry,'' he wrote some time ago. "If you bring one of them home, you will get a small plaque as your reward.''

Well, the Church can boast many of them, so lots of plaques must have been distributed. In the case of Travolta, he'll even star in a movie that's based on the writings of The Founder. Given that kind of dedication, it would seem that the Scientologists could afford to lose some of their institutional suspicions.

Relax guys. No pernicious article will be sprung on you. Tell your lawyers to take the rest of the week off.

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