How do we solve a problem like Scientology?
Its founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard (who, according to Scientologists, isn’t dead but rather resides in a different context that’s too complex for us non-Scientologists to fathom) used his Hollywood know-how and derring-do to make the cult a worldwide powerhouse complete with a bevy of eager celebrity converts. Hubbard’s successor, the mercurial David Miscavige now faces a crisis management situation: Hollywood has become Scientology’s biggest enemy.
Unlike other cults, which seem to attract lonely, desperate, impoverished people, Scientology brings in exactly the kind of telegenic, narcissistic, egomaniacs who make for great entertainment. For years, the cult has been known as much for its biggest celebrity supporters (John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley) as it has for its actual (and often disturbing) message.
There’s no doubt that Lawrence Wright’s serious expose, Going Clear, and the dogged determination of many other journalists, have gone far to expose the insidious nature of this organization.
But Scientology is facing a demographic challenge: the number of new recruits is down, thanks in part to Scientology’s inability to develop younger breakout stars to supplant Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the all-important eighteen to forty-nine demographic. As well, Hollywood and the mainstream media, which for decades stayed clear of reporting anything negative about Scientology in order to make nice with celebrities such as Cruise and Travolta, doesn’t run scared anymore.
In fact, Scientology’s big breakout star these days is a woman who publicly broke out of Scientology. Leah Remini, the most famous person ever to leave the cult, would be the first to admit that she wasn’t all that famous to begin with. After a career as a sitcom actress and failed talk show host, Remini has become the kind of truth-telling, defiant, wise-cracking protagonist that creates instant traction on reality TV—which is why her new show about Scientology is eminently watchable.
Remini’s series, “Scientology and the Aftermath,” is a breakout, binge-worthy cable hit that has viewers clamoring for a second season. Like the best reality show stars, she’s the pal who sits with us in the corner and gives us the hilarious low-down on everyone—but in this case it’s the low down on the inner workings of a notorious cult. We get fun celebrity dish, such as the fact that Tom Cruise was only encouraged to do the “soft sell” on fellow A-listers like Russell Crowe to join Scientology, while Remini and other B-list stars were expected to go all out in recruiting their co-stars (in Remini’s case, her co-star Kevin James). Watching former Scientologists in action allows TV viewers to do what they most love doing these days: judging others.
The BBC has also entered the Scientology fray with “My Scientology Movie”, a documentary film produced by Simon Chinn, whose previous work includes the Oscar-winning documentaries “Man on Wire” and “Searching for Sugar Man.” The conceit of the documentary – “we just wanted to make a movie that explains Scientology but they refuse to cooperate”—isn’t exactly fresh, but the film’s protagonist, Louis Theroux, plays the part of the film’s affable, gob-smacked British guide to perfection.
The film relies too heavily on the shtick that filmmakers like Michael Moore have run into the ground, including the now clichéd bit where the filmmaker shows up at headquarters and politely asks the guard if he can meet with the people in charge. There are the predictable scenes where everyone ends up aggressively filming each other while insisting that everyone put their cameras away.
Worse still, when the “bad guys” inevitably start following Theroux, he has to act as surprised as a wrestling announcer who can’t believe that someone has just been hit over the head with a metal folding chair.
But what “My Scientology Movie” does have going for it is Marty Rathbun, an egomaniacal hothead who defected from Scientology. Rathbun, who constantly brags that he rose to the plum position of Scientology’s “Inspector General,” is the gift that keeps on giving. He clearly can’t come to terms with the fact that much of his job included doling out mental and physical punishments to innocent people as well as doing underhanded and unethical things to protect Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige. Like many former bullies, Rathbun seems incapable of taking responsibility for the magnitude of his past actions. The viewer gets to see how Scientology plays into the egos of self-absorbed, power-hungry people—not just narcissistic celebrities.
There’s still clearly a great deal more material to mine in Scientology. The second season of Remini’s show will likely explore the unsolved disappearance of Miscavige’s wife as well as rumors that the cult is merely a place where A-list male movie stars can hide their homosexuality.
But if the new TV shows and documentaries about Scientology succeed in entertaining audiences, they also do a great service in reminding viewers of the dangers of cults. Hollywood’s serious reevaluation of Scientology is long overdue.