Hollywood Values

May 13, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers the Hollywood take on family values.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: We’ve heard the accusation for years that Hollywood, with its single moms, soap opera sex, and trendy disregard for traditional family values, is responsible for the moral decline of America.

It’s the stuff of books and the stuff of sound bites. The TV and movie makers have routinely howled, ever vigilant about their creative rights, not to mention a little defensive, but the truth is, or the irony is that in the past couple of years something has been shifting around in the souls and/or pocketbooks out here in Hollywood. Of course, the line between the two isn’t often very clear. In a recent Gallup poll three in five Americans said religion was either extremely important or very important in their lives.

Another 24 percent say it is fairly important. And even if many of those people aren’t steady churchgoers or even adherents to particular sects, what is clear is that Hollywood, without a big to do, is taking advantage. The most obvious offering in the new spiritual genre is the CBS Sunday night hit series “Touched By An Angel,” which has crept up in the ratings since its 1994 debut to a viewership of 20 million. It’s no secret that angels are hot.

DELLA REESE SINGING: Believe me, I’ll walk with you.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: From calendars to the covers of news magazines from book jackets to the Broadway stage, they’ve been hovering over the national landscape in the last couple of years.

DELLA REESE: (“Touched By An Angel”) I’m an angel, sent by God–

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Non-denomination and non-authoritarian do-gooders, angels can be wise and females like Tess in “Touched By An Angel.” They can also be male and raunchy like John Travolta in the hit film “Michael,” or male and elegant like Denzel Washington in the “Preacher’s Wife.” They are the plot devices for late 20th century America, goading us to do the right thing.

JOHN TRAVOLTA: Check the angle handbook.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In a country where 3/4 of the people believe the country’s moral direction is worse than when they were kids, tele-angels are the divine antidote, helping to show us the way back to old-fashioned virtue and values.

At the heart of Jim Carrey’s antic, blockbuster comedy, “Liar, Liar,” is a sweet, old-fashioned family values morality tale. Lying lawyer dad is forced to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth for 24 hours, and learns to love his son and ex-wife in the bargain. The same theme was at the heart of “Jerry Maguire,” starring Tom Cruise as a soul-searching sports agent who’s saved from his lesser self by the love of a young woman and her son.

Even “Private Parts,” Howard Stern’s bio-pick, is a hymn to family values. “I might be a straight-talking, foul-mouthed, gay-bashing, shtick-offering talk show host, but at heart, I’m a devoted husband and family man”–that’s the message of his movie. Howard Stern is being a little more cynical than he’s being given credit for, maybe a lot more.

Still, the general message is resonating with the public, deeply concerned about values, numbed by the steady drip of scandal out of Washington, a country where over half the people don’t think that the President, the Congress, the media or any of the other major institutions are trustworthy. Into this moral vacuum have flow the guardian angels, in all their guises and disguises, a breath of fresh air in a cynical age. Their ratings are dynamite, and you can bet that more angel scripts are waiting in the wings.

ACTRESS: (“Touched By An Angel) I’m an angel from God. I am.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.