Tom Hanks has mastered that very difficult hat trick of being a box office star, an award winning actor and, from all outward appearances, a very decent guy. That trifecta is as rare as astatine on the Periodic Chart. Hanks is famous. Jack Chick, on the other hand, not so much. Chick, who was a fundamentalist preacher with a penchant for wild streaks of anti-Catholicism, passed away Oct. 23, just before the opening of the new Dan Brown thriller “Inferno” starring Hanks.
What do they have in common? More than you’d think.
Chick was infamous for anti-Catholic tirades he created in crude cartoon form. The bigotry presented in these cartoons was usually wedged into car windshield wipers in supermarket parking lots. They told tales of chicanery and conspiracy, of how the Catholic Church controls banks, a secret one world government and, my favorite, “unearthed” the scandal of how the Jesuits plotted and succeeded in assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Boy, those Jesuits sure do get around!
Chick’s anti-Catholicism was clumsy and overt, but another form exists in a softer, parallel universe, one that is the epitome of sophistication and refinement — and one that is covertly anathema to so many things the Church has been teaching for the past 2,000 years. The Hanks/Ron Howard creative collaboration that brought us the Brown bestseller “The DaVinci Code” is back. “Inferno” is the third installment and, although the Church is not the overt villain in this piece like it was in the previous incarnations (thanks for little favors), the overall sense that the Church is at best a benign group of unenlightened and misdirected do-gooders or unenlightened and misdirected oppressor of rights remains steadfastly in place.
Despite the ridiculousness of the Brown books and their lack of familiarity with historical facts aside, these films could not be more mainstream. Chick with his outrageous claims about papal underhandedness and Catholic impurity, along with corresponding crude cartoon work, is easily laughed off. But serious mainstream entertainment brought to us by Hollywood A-listers like Hanks and Howard is, in its own way, much more insipid. After all, these are the artists who gave us “Saving Private Ryan,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
I know it’s weird that I remember this, and maybe my recalling it so vividly is proof I need to get a hobby, but years ago Hanks made a film with Jackie Gleason called “You Again.” The plot was Hanks as a big shot ad man (they’re always ad men) who has to stop his fast-track life to take care of a sick father who just had his 40-plus year marriage blow up in his face. No spoiler alert —everything works out and we have a happy ending — but there was one scene that hit me like a sledgehammer.
Gleason visits Hanks to tell him his wife, Hank’s mother, has left him. Hanks’ character is still self-absorbed and not very close to his father. Gleason’s character defends himself by telling Hanks that it was not his fault. He then drops “Your mother was frigid.” Hanks’ response? “What do you expect — she went to Catholic school.” It wasn’t a laugh line, the context was dead serious and aimed at telling the audience something about the woman we were yet to meet.
Like all bigotries, it takes a little pretzel logic to embrace it. Catholics are frigid and Catholics have too many kids. How do these both manage to be true at the same time?
I’m not trying to single out Hanks and Howard. I like them both as artists and they both do a lot of great charitable work. But as their trilogy of Dan Brown books betray, they seem to harbor velvet glove bigotry of the Church, which goes down so much easier than a rant from a street corner preacher. The way the Church is portrayed in these films also exposes a very popular point of view that it is hubris for one religion to claim to hold the truth and that all religions are equally true to a degree. But if you accept that premise, logical calculus also dictates that all religions must also be equally false.