On-screen (and On-couch) Behavior

Since the world doesn’t always accommodate a Catholic idea of modesty, we are supposed to maintain “custody of the eyes.” We work at keeping our eyes to ourselves, learning not to stare at things we shouldn’t be seeing, whether they’re in real life or on the screen.

I once startled someone (really, she was extremely startled) by describing how, when my husband and I watch movies or TV, we sometimes reach scenes that make us shield our eyes or make mood-killing noises until the scene is over. She could see why a single person, or a dating person, or a married person trying to abstain would want to guard himself from temptation. But a married couple with, shall we say, a green light? What is the problem?

Well, it’s not because Catholics hate or fear sex. (I’ve never quite understood how Catholics could simultaneously fear and hate sex and have such big families. It’s like saying Van Gogh hated and feared paint.) Among other reasons, I shield my eyes because my husband is my one and only beloved, the only man in the world, the only one who has the right and privilege of my affections, and I refuse to be put in the mood by some depilated Hollywood pretty boy feigning ecstasy under the Klieg lights. So I look away, because either I’ll be disgusted by what I see, or I’ll be disgusted with myself for liking what I see.

Those standards help me figure out what to watch (and I admire directors who manage to convey smoldering emotions without actually making the camera zoom in on the flames). Some Catholics refuse to watch anything R-rated, to be on the safe side. This strict standard isn’t wrong, but it will deprive you of some truly profound and edifying works of art. So I think it’s reasonable to watch R-rated films as long as we’re vigilant and honest with ourselves, and have the humility to admit our weaknesses and deal with them, even if it feels silly.

But some people refuse to watch a movie not only because of its effect on the viewer, but because watching it (oh, this nebulous word) “supports” the immoral behavior of actors, who must surely be sinning by acting out sins on screen. Feigned sin is scandalous, and we mustn’t condone scandal, they say; or they say that actors must experience, for instance, lustful thoughts in order to act out lust convincingly.

True? I don’t know. Probably with at least some actors (just as some actors probably drum up feelings of hate or sadism to do a realistic murder scene). But actors who are decent human beings must face some dilemmas. How do they decide where to draw the line? They must face a dilemma similar to the viewer’s dilemma, setting standards according to their own states in life, based on self-knowledge and respect for their families. Here are some actors who took a stand:

Patrick McGoohan, famous for The Prisoner, turned down the primo role of James Bond in Dr. No because he found the character morally repugnant, and didn’t want to be part of a spectacle that treated women like disposable bits of juicy meat.  He said,

I am not against romance on television, but sex is the antithesis of romance. Television is a gargantuan master that all sorts of people watch at all sorts of time, and it has a moral obligation towards its audience.

According to gossip mag and trade publication Deadline Hollywood, the Catholic actor Neal McDonough was fired from the ABC series Scoundrels for refusing to do sex scenes with Virginia Madsen.

[H]e also didn’t get into action with Nicolette Sheridan on the network’s Desperate Housewives when he played her psycho husband during Season 5. And he also didn’t do love scenes with his on-air girlfriend in his previous series, NBC’s Boomtown, or that network’s Medical Investigation. ”It has cost him jobs, but the man is sticking to his principles,” a source explained.

I don’t know if McDonough disapproves of on-screen sex in general, or just didn’t want to act sexy with anyone but his own wife, but either way—nice, eh? I swoon when my husband, the viewer, turns away from a naked actress. There is nothing more seductive than seeing a great power held in reserve for me alone. I imagine McDonough’s wife felt the same way.

1920’s star Mary Pickford stepped in for actress Billie Dove to kiss her real-life husband Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate. It’s generally reported that the switcheroo was made to pacify Pickford’s extreme jealousy and insecurity, but who knows? If I saw my husband kissing another woman, I wouldn’t be jealous. I’d be too busy stabbing him.

Apparently, Kirk Cameron manipulated the cameras so he could kiss his wife, rather than the actress who plays his wife, in Fireproof. (I say “apparently” because watching Fireproof would be, for me, an occasion of the sin of incredibly snobberific sneering, plus several counts of elitist throwing up.)

Anyway, what do you think? How do you decide where to draw the line in what to watch? And if you have any experience with acting or actors, I’d be fascinated to hear your take.