Way Before Leah Remini, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy Took on Scientology in the Brilliantly Funny “Bowfinger”

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I know this shot of Heather Graham has nothing to do with Scientology, but hey why not?

Kevin: Considering it was once powerful enough to make the IRS bend to its will, it’s amazing that exposing the Church of Scientology has almost become an industry unto itself in the last few years, with documentaries like “Going Clear” and Leah Remini’s hit A&E show lifting the veil that once protected the secretive “religion.” But while former Sea Org members like Remini and director Paul Haggis deserve credit for finally speaking out, let’s not forget that back when it was still able to scare politicians, journalists, and major Hollywood players into silence, Steve Martin quietly snuck a very pointed takedown of Scientology into his 1999 classic “Bowfinger.” And if you live in Austin and you either hate Scientology or love comedy, you can check out the last great film Martin or Eddie Murphy made on the big screen tonight at the Alamo Ritz (or if you don’t live in Austin, check the calendar of your nearest Alamo Drafthouse if you have one):

In the film Steve Martin plays Bobby Bowfinger, less a has-been and more a never-was, who is determined to finally fulfill his lifelong dream of making a movie before he turns the dreaded 50-years-old and thus becomes unemployable in Hollywood. While it’s the kind of genial comedy that everyone from your kids to your parents can enjoy, Martin’s script subtly makes his feelings clear about being an aging star who wants to make good films, but who has to deal with younger and soulless studio executives like Robert Downey Jr.’s character, whose idea of reading a script is looking at the first page and then skipping past everything in the middle (“all of this” as he dismissively says) before judging it based on the last line (“Got ya’ suckas!”).

It’s also probably not a coincidence that Heather Graham’s seemingly innocent but calculating ingénue sleeps her way up the movie-making food chain – from actors to screenwriters to Bowfinger himself – before eventually ending up with “the most powerful lesbian in Hollywood,” considering that actress Anne Heche reportedly broke up with Steve Martin to be with Ellen Degeneres from 1997 until 2000, after which Heche then apparently decided to be heterosexual again.

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While Martin obviously has a few axes to grind, Eddie Murphy also uses one of his two characters in the film – action superstar Kit Ramsey – as a mouthpiece for a number of things Murphy may have wanted to express about not only his own place in Hollywood at the time, but the way the industry treats black actors in general. Because once again, it’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence that Murphy’s very similar alter ego is constantly comparing his place in the Hollywood pecking order against that of his white peers, with dialogue such as:

To his agent: “I’m the biggest black action star in the world! Where’s my ‘hasta la vista baby’? Look, if Arnold Schwarzenegger, cracker, is getting to say lines like that, you better make sure that Kit Ramsey is getting shit that’s equally well-written!”

To the limo driver that pulls up to his mansion: “Get my door as fast as you get Tom Hanks’!”

To his agent again later at lunch: “I know I ‘aint gonna get treated like ‘Mighty Whitey’ in this town.”

During that same lunch, Kit Ramsey/Eddie Murphy also perfectly summarizes Hollywood’s view of “diversity” and treatment of black actors nearly 16 years before #OscarsSoWhite: “White boys get all the Oscars, it’s just a fact. Did I get a nomination? No, and you know why? ‘Cause I didn’t play none of them slave roles or get my ass whipped; that’s when you get the nominations. Black dude plays a slave role, gets his ass whipped, he gets a nomination. White boy plays an idiot, they get the Oscar. Maybe I should play an idiot. Find me a script with a retarded slave, then I get the Oscar.”

(Ironically in 2007, Murphy allegedly left that year’s Oscars ceremony – where he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “Dreamgirls” – early after Alan Arkin won it instead for “Little Miss Sunshine.” First of all, while there are other Eddie Murphy movies I like more than “Bowfinger,” I still firmly believe he should have gotten an Oscar for this, because as egotistical movie star Kit Ramsey and his innocent doofus brother Jiff – who hopes to get a career running errands because that would be a major boost for him – Murphy is both hysterical and touching in a way no other actor could have been. And Murphy was right to be pissed, because while I don’t like “Dreamgirls,” he made that movie come alive whenever he was on screen, whereas Arkin just did his usual foul-mouthed old man shtick and then died 30 minutes into the movie.)

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But getting back to Scientology, “Bowfinger” came out at a time when few people knew much about it other than that Tom Cruise and John Travolta were members and that it seemed very, uh, “proactive” in advancing its agenda and protecting its interests. Yet looking back, Steve Martin actually gave us a pretty good view into the organization way before anyone had heard of Xenu, Thetans, or “Battlefield Earth”:

While he’s obviously not explicitly labeled a Scientologist in “Bowfinger,” Murphy’s paranoid and heavily guarded movie star character Kit Ramsey instead belongs to a secretive religion called “MindHead,” lead by an obvious L. Ron Hubbard stand-in – “Terry Stricter” – played by Terence Stamp. Although it’s also ironic that during their meeting early in the film, Stricter has to constantly reassure Kit that “there are no aliens,” even though we’ve since learned that aliens are a big part of the Scientology mythology:

But while Martin may have gotten that wrong in the script, “Bowfinger’s” depiction of MindHead’s Los Angeles headquarters isn’t that far removed from the actual Scientology center in east Hollywood:

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Meanwhile, after Kit has been driven to Kanye West-level insanity due to Bowfinger’s attempts to film him without his knowledge, Stricter makes a rare visit to his mansion, where he finds Kit hooked up to something that could easily be the movie’s version of Scientology’s infamous “e-meter”:

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And way before any of us knew how much money Scientology allegedly demanded from its members, when Stricter suggests Kit hide out at MindHead’s “celebrity relaxing quarters,” a thankful and relieved Kit immediately tells one of his subordinates, “Go get my checkbook.”

Now in case you thought Martin was being too subtle about what he thought about Scientology, soon after when he tells his cameraman – played by Jamie Kennedy – that they need to find Kit, this is what Kennedy says: “They keep his movements secret. That cult thing? They control him.”

Eventually Bowfinger is caught due to a studio security guard who is also a Level 6 MindHeader, but after stumbling across footage of Kit indulging his secret shame of flashing the L.A. Lakers cheerleaders, he tellingly doesn’t try and bribe Kit directly, but instead goes to Stricter since it’s obvious he is the one calling the shots for Kit. After Bowfinger points out that the resulting scandal would scuttle the family film Kit is about to do (in another interesting real-life parallel for the newest Dr. Dolittle), Stricter all but confirms his total control over one of Hollywood’s biggest superstars when he says, “We’ll have to think about it. I mean, we’ll have to think about it … for Kit.”

Eventually we get a happy ending, as MindHead (or “MindFuck,” as Martin tellingly almost calls them) gives in and lets Bowfinger release his movie. And while I might be totally misinterpreting Steve Martin’s message in “Bowfinger,” I’ll just end by noting that when he is reminded that they have no permission to film Kit, Bowfinger responds, “Did you know Tom Cruise had no idea he was in that vampire movie until two years later?” Huh, I wonder why out of all the stars in Hollywood at the time, he chose Tom Cruise for that example?

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Post Script: Since we know that anyone who writes about Scientology is in danger of being sued, Tough Guy Digest would like to make clear that we do not endorse any accusations about the Church of Scientology, and that we are merely reporting accusations that others have made which may or may not be true (plus we have no money). We would also like to make it clear that no matter what his beliefs, we love Tom Cruise and – as we said last month – we can’t wait to see the next “Mission: Impossible,” as well as this week’s “American Made” (currently 88% on Rotten Tomatoes), which I put at the top of my Most Anticipated list way back in January.

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