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Hollywood: God Is Nigh
are 2,000 AA meetings a week in Los Angeles;
will religion make a movie comeback?
Benjamin J. Stein
specter is haunting Hollywood. The specter is God, borne
down Sunset Boulevard on the wings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It would be hard right now to imagine a more atheistic community
than the people who make prime-time-TV and feature movies.
The result is that it's almost impossible to find a Hollywood
product with real human characters who make a decision based
upon religion. Television viewers once saw a sincere Archie
Bunker down on his knees and praying to God, but more recently,
studio and network executives wince when they are presented
with a pitch about a character who talks about God unless
he is an Elmer Gantry-type hypocrite.
suspect that this is about to change. An entire generation
that came of age in the '60s and '70s, that thought that
cocaine, alcohol and pills were the inevitable accompaniment
of work in "the biz" are now recoiling from the
disorder that drugs have wrought in their lives. They are
retreating to A.A. And therein lies a tale of how A.A. and
I would never have known about this were it not for a few
things that happened to me in late 1987 when I became a
father for the first time at the age of 42, lost more than
I could afford to in the stock market crash and learned
that a loved one was a drug addict. Like any good American,
I asked my doctor for the means to cut the anxiety, allow
me to work and let my eyes close in sleep at the end of
the day. Soon, I had my cupboard filled with sleeping pills
and tranquilizers; with chloral hydrate and meprobamate,
Xanax and Halcion to take the edge off reality. Within months
I was walking around in a sort of prescribed fog. I felt
far better, but I still had a real problem - the pills were
doing nothing about them. I told a friend that I wanted
to see what my life would be like without medication that
dulled the sharp edges. He suggested that I go to A.A. I
told him that I almost never drank, but he just smiled.
"try it," he said, "You'll like it."
And indeed I did. From the first meeting I went to in Beverly
Hills almost eight months ago until now, I have been moved
by the way that A.A. cleans up messy, wrecked lives. At
every meeting their is a similar format. After prayers and
brief readings from "Alcoholics Anonymous," the
basic text, one or more persons stands up and talks about
what it was like before A.A., how he or she happened to
come to the program and how he or she lives without drugs
and alcohol. Some of these talks are astoundingly graphic.
At one of the first meetings I went to, a young man told
about how, when strung out on intravenous cocaine, he would
hold his arm over a fish tank, cut into his veins with a
razor and watch the blood flow into the tank and turn the
water pink." Another man recounted how he could almost
simultaneously shoot cocaine into each of his arms while
he also smoked freebase. Others, by the score, told of getting
drunk and crashing into telephone poles - then sailing through
windshields. They talked about drunk tanks and jails.
I appreciated the more analytical approach. One man, who
spoke for almost every addict I have ever known, said that
he had been a "heartbroken child." He had carried
that heartbreak around with him all of his life until he
met alcohol and drugs and then found that they organized
his life. They took away the pain and allowed him to succeed
at his work - until they so disorganized his life that he
literally fell apart. A.A., its tenets, its group willpower,
its spiritualism, he said, had helped him put his life back
I found this form of public confession deeply affecting.
But more than this, this quintessentially Protestant, holy
roller sort of ritual (albeit delivered with startling restraint
considering the subject matter) struck me as key to how
and why A.A. works. In fact, an A.A. meeting is not unlike
a revival meeting. The excitement and attention that were
conferred by drugs and alcohol are now provided by bearing
witness. And Roman Catholics, Jews and high end Protestants
averse to smiting their breasts in public are being "saved"
- even applauded. They are being given the kind of reinforcement
that substitutes nicely for drugs and alcohol.
confession: There is an even more basic borrowing
from religion in A.A. or in Narcotics Anonymous or Cocaine
Anonymous: all of these 12-step programs devote a lot of
time and attention to praising God for lifting the curse
of their addiction, one day at a time. Fully six of the
famous 12 steps of A.A. talk about relying on God or on
following a "Higher Power."
A.A. in short, is a lot like religion. And at the present
moment, this religion is sweeping Hollywood. There are more
than 2,000 A.A. meetings per week in Los Angeles, many of
them jammed with people in the entertainment business. As
the Hollywood movers and shakers leave the land of mirrors
and lines and tinkling glasses, they enter the world of
public confession and prayer.
These are the very same people who write the scripts, direct
the movies, star in them and produce them. And 12 years
of working here have taught me that what the "creative
talent" have on their minds is what they put into their
work. If A.A. has put God on their minds, then it's fairly
clear that God will soon appear on big and little screens
- his presence also acknowledged by rock musicians since
A.A. is particularly popular among performers and their
about high concept in Hollywood. The wheel is coming full
circle. As the habits of the '60s make life unworkable,
A.A. offers a way out. Religion, laughed out of town in
the '60s and '70s, is making a comeback via the inevitable
fight from the same forces that drove it out in the first
place. This is going to shape mass culture, I suspect, in
a big way. Stranger things have happened.
for me, I take it one day at a time.
Newsweek, December 12, 1988)