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Courting controversy IN FOCUS by Richard Crouse 15 May 2009

angels_demons12Catholic League boss William Donohue doesn’t want you to see the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. In a booklet titled Angels & Demons: More Demonic than Angelic, he accuses director Ron Howard of “smearing the Catholic Church.” He’s not alone. Hindu scholars have condemned the movie for “playing with the sentiments of the faithful for mercantile greed” and Vatican officials were purportedly considering a ban of the film.

Howard, usually the most non-contentious of Hollywood directors, seems to be treading on Oliver Stone territory here. He shot back at Donohue in the Huffington Post. “Let me be clear,” he wrote, “neither I nor Angels & Demons are anti-Catholic,” but deep down I think he knows a little uproar can be good for business.

History shows us that movies have courted controversy since the very beginning.

The 1896 film The Kiss rode reviews like, “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions … it is absolutely disgusting,” to the top of the box office.

Half a century later, another Howard, this time Howard Hughes, directed a movie thought to be so salacious that its “assault on decency” saw several theatre owners arrested for unspooling it.

Completed in 1941, The Outlaw was such a hot potato it didn’t see general release until 1946.

Officially the film is about Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid’s feud over a woman called Rio, but informally it’s about something else entirely — star Jane Russell’s chest. Hughes was so smitten with Russell’s deep cleavage he showcased it in the film and even had a special cantilevered bra designed to enhance the appearance of her 38D bust.

The emphasis on her breasts was too much for the Hollywood Production Code Administration, who demanded changes to the film.

Hughes balked, becoming the first American filmmaker to defy the Production Code and use the resulting hullabaloo to lure audiences into theatres.

The thing that binds all of these movies is controversy. Without it we may never have heard of The Kiss, The Outlaw or even Angels & Demons. In fact, Ron Howard should be dropping Donohue a thank-you note for all the free publicity his campaign against the film has generated.

After all, it was essayist William Hazlitt who said, “When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.”

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