Many years ago (1976), my first job in the film industry was as the assistant to a legendary film producer named Ray Stark. Ray produced such classics as “Funny Girl,” “The Way We Were,” and “The Goodbye Girl.” Even though I went out on my own in 1980 to produce “Somewhere in Time,” Ray and I stayed in touch and, from time to time, he would invite me to his home to watch films with him in his projection room. One night, in 1984, he invited me over to see a new film called “Splash.” Ray was particularly interested in “Splash” because, for years, he had been developing a remake to a dramatic film from the 1940’s entitled “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid,” in which a man found a mermaid, put her in a pond near him, and fell in love with her. When we had finished watching “Splash,” Ray turned to me and said. “Well, that’s the end of developing “Peabody.” There are some issues that audiences just respond better to when they’re presented in comedies than when drama is involved. An audience will give you a lot more leeway in a comedy with their willingness to suspend disbelief than they will in a drama.”
My dear friend Bruce Joel Rubin, the genius writer of “Ghost,” told me that the whole notion of the Whoopi Goldberg character in the film being comedic was a major key to making the overall film work as it did. Audiences love to laugh and it just makes the story more easily digestible when laughter is present.
Wise men. Wise words.
Some of the great spiritual films are comedies because they indeed give us that chance as an audience to look more comfortably at certain subject matter that could otherwise be very daunting if presented in drama; moreover, these films allow us to look at ourselves in very human, but humorous ways. “Groundhog Day” presents a brilliant metaphor for how we evolve from lifetime to lifetime. “Defending Your Life” looks at how we examine our lives after we transition and become aware of the issues that we chose to deal with in life. “Heaven Can Wait” shows us how destiny and love can combine to completely alter who we are and how we see ourselves. (All of those films are available on DVD and I highly recommend them.)
Another perfect case in point to look at in more depth is the wonderful 1977 film “Oh, God” in which God appears in the form of George Burns to deliver some important messages to the world via a meek grocery clerk played with innocent sweetness by John Denver. By actually believing that he is indeed talking to God, Denver loses his job, and also becomes an object of derision until God actually makes a dramatic courtroom appearance on Denver’s behalf. In a drama, I don’t believe that audiences would have been receptive to such a premise but, in this charming, witty, and gentle film, some beautiful and empowering messages about our humanity were slipped in between the laughter and the fun of the plot:
“Even non-believers want what you have here to work. I set the world up so it can work.”
“Religion is easy. I’m talking about faith.”
“Men and women’s existence means what you think it means. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“I’m God only for the big picture. I don’t get into details. I gave you a world and everything in it. It’s all up to you.”
“You have free will. All the choices are yours.”
“Young people can’t fall from my grace. They’re my best things.”
“You want a miracle? You make a fish from scratch. You can’t. And when the last one’s gone, eighty-six on the fishes, good-bye sky, so long world. It’s over.”
“Sure, I make mistakes. Tobacco. Ostriches, silly-looking things. Avocadoes, made the pit too big. But, hey, you try.”
In the courtroom scene at the end of the film, Burns delivers one of the most poignant lines of the film: “If you find it hard to believe in me, know that I believe in you.”
Laughter and tears of joy and recognition. Now THAT’S Spiritual Cinema.