JUST IN TIME FOR ST. PADDYS: Sweeney chronicles her funny path from Irish-Catholicism to atheism in one-woman show, Letting Go of God
By Daniel Kusner | Friday, March 16, 2007
She's one of the sweetest performers to ever join the ranks of "Saturday Night Live."
And when I tell Julia Sweeney that I really enjoy some parts of the 1994 box-office and critical bomb, "It's Pat," she says, "Bless your heart."
A former accountant who became a professional comedian, Sweeney created the androgynous character Pat Riely when she was a member of The Groundlings.
In 1998, she followed "It's Pat" with "God Said Ha!" a one-woman show that found laughter in the face of cancer.
Now she's unearthed the funny side of examining God's nonexistence.
But first, back to "God Said Ha!"
Shortly after Julia moved into her two-bedroom bungalow in Hollywood, her younger brother Mike was diagnosed with lymphoma.
First, Mike moved in. And then the Sweeney parents moved in.
And amid the dysfunctional-family chaos, Julia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Director Quentin Tarantino translated the stage version of "God Said Ha" into film.
As much as the story is about Julia, it's also about Mike, who ultimately lost his battle.
And while Julia was the eldest of the five Sweeney kids, the way she described Mike, it was unclear if he was gay or not.
Was Mike gay?
"Yes. He was," Sweeney says from her home in Los Angeles.
She encouraged Mike to come out to the Sweeney parents. But while creating "God Said Ha!" the big sister protected Mike's privacy.
"The family didn't really know it. And it doesn't really matter anymore. I only kept that secret ... Well, I didn't keep it secret. I just didn't put it in the show, because Mike wasn't open about it. And out of respect for him ...
"We used to argue about it all the time. All the Sweeney kids knew," she continues. "But Mike said.. Oh, this is going to make me cry... Mike said, 'When I'm in a long-term relationship with someone I love, then I will tell Mom and Dad.'"
Mike wasn't your typical Cher-loving gay dude. He listened to the Crash Test Dummies. And during chemo treatments, he usually wore his "Reservoir Dogs" T-shirt.
"And then he died. So he never got that person," Julia says.
Now she's learning about the coming out process from a different closet. Because Julia Sweeney is an atheist.
Earlier this year, her new one-woman show, "Letting Go of God" was independently released on CD ($19.95, JuliaSweeney.com). And coincidentally, on May 5 the show will be taped for a film version during its run at the Renberg Theater at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles.
In her signature wholesomeness, Sweeney chronicles her journey to the land of the non-believers.
As devout Catholic, she idolized nuns who taught at her all-girl high school in Spokane, Wash. She loved "The Flying Nun," "The Singing Nun" and Audrey Hepburn in "A Nun's Story."
Like most Catholics, Sweeney was inculcated with Vatican-administered rituals. And like most Catholics, she grew up not as a literalist but as an interpreter of the Bible.
"And I was never a fan of the pope," she remembers.
But one afternoon, some young Mormon missionaries rang her doorbell and asked if she "believed" in God's love. That question became the pea under her spiritual mattress. The Mormon boys' dedication to God inspired Sweeney to rededicate her faith. So she joined a Bible Study class.
Sweeney began with the Old Testament and made her way through the sequel. And through the fresh eyes of an adult, she found the whole idea of a supernatural being rather unbelievable.
"If there was a God, why he would send his son to be a savior to us by telling us incredibly convoluted and vague stories?. Also, Jesus was really pissed off most of the time," Sweeny says. "If there was a God and God wanted us to behave a certain way, why wouldn't he just say, "'Look, here I am in the sky. Here's what you got to do. And this is how you have to do it.'"
Through her studies, Sweeney also couldn't get past the Bible's many breadcrumbs of immorality.
"The Bible says if someone has an adulterous affair if you're a woman, you should be stoned to death. The Bible promotes slavery. And that men should have more than one wife," she says. "The Bible isn't a good place to look for morality. It's just an archaic document."
Not that the New Testament doesn't contain some gorgeous prose.
"The Sermon on the Mount is fantastic. And there's lots of good advice for living. But that doesn't mean that it's sacred," she says.
I mention that in the Rev. Mel White's recent book, "Religion Gone Bad," that Dallas' First Baptist Church is said to be the historical birthplace of anti-gay evangelicalism. And that many gays and lesbians have been kicked out of churches because they're gay.
"Good! They should feel lucky. They shouldn't be at church in the first place," Sweeney says.
Sweeney says she has gay friends who struggle with anti-gay Christianity.
"And I keep saying to them, 'What are you trying to do wanting to be in a church? Why is anyone trying to be in a church? It's like complaining, 'Why can't I be in the KKK? They kicked me out!'"
Just because Sweeney has "let go of God" doesn't mean she doesn't have a spirituality.
"I have a fond appreciation of life. I have enormous appreciation that I exist," she explains. "It's just that supernatural connection to 'spiritual' that I don't think exists."
So why has a gay and lesbian center in Los Angeles become the venue to film her next show?
Because Mike was gay?
Because of the androgynous "It's Pat" character?
Sweeney says the connection to a gay audience might somewhat indirect.
"First, you think you might be atheist. You don't know. Then you do know. Then you consider whether or not you tell your family. How does your family react? How do you reconcile with your family? How many people need to know it?" she remembers. "When I was going through it, I thought, This must be like what it would be like to be gay."
Earlier this week, I phoned Sweeney again to see how the very Irish former Catholic will celebrate St. Patrick's day.
"That's really a secular holiday. It's not like anyone is really revering Saint Patrick," she says. "He probably never existed and never drove the snakes out of Ireland. I've always thought it was just a day to celebrate Irishness and drink."
WHO NEEDS AN ANTI-GAY GOD ANYWAY?
Julia Sweeney made an excellent recommendation for gays and lesbians who feel rejected by Christianity: "The God Who Wasn't There" ($24.98, TheGodMovie.com).
Written and directed by Brian Flemming, the sharply edited, funny documentary questions the literal history of Jesus and chronology of early Christianity.
There's plenty of evidence of gay-hating Christians who worship violence.
And by using unauthorized clips from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ," Flemming examines the connection between blood sacrifice and transubstantiation.
While illustrating the way things are told so often they become fact, Flemming coincidentally happens to be the guy who's responsible for the term "spam" when referring to e-mail spam. (So weird!)
Great music by David Byrne and queer band LeTigre compliment the nifty soundtrack.
"The God Who Wasn't There" is so hilariously blasphemous, it just might scare the bejesus out of you.
— Daniel Kusner
Lone Star literary lion LARRY MCMURTY is confident that his gay cowboy movie is stronger than Gov. Rick Perry
By Daniel A. Kusner Dec. 12, 2005
A tragedy about lost opportunity, repression, finding love and never letting it go, “Brokeback Mountain” is a powerful drama. And the momentum behind the film builds on a day-to-day basis.
Critics groups in Boston, Los Angeles and New York recently named the cowboy romance as the year’s best film. And on Tuesday, it dominated the Golden Globes with seven nominations, including one for best screenplay, written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
A lifelong Texan, McMurtry is the Pulitzer-winner who created “The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Hud” and “Terms of Endearment.” A few hours after the Golden Globe nominations were announced, McMurtry conducted phone interviews while in Austin.
Based on Annie Proulx’s 1997 near-perfect short story, “Brokeback” is about the doomed bond between two men who fall in love while herding sheep together. It’s also partially set in the Lone Star State.
Just as the film’s marketing campaign was gearing up, Texas was hit with two historical anti-gay blows: the overwhelming victory of a state amendment to ban same-sex marriages and Governor Rick Perry essentially telling gay soldiers returning from Iraq that — instead of Texas — they should consider a more “lenient” state to settle down.
"If there is some other state that has a more lenient view than Texas, then maybe that's a better place for them to live," the Lone Star State's longest-sitting governor, Rick Perry.
“If the governor wants to say foolish things, I can’t stop him. And it’s too bad about the proposition. But that’s not forever,” McMurtry says. “Five years from now, Governor Perry won’t be there. And we’ll see about the rest.”
When it comes to statements on Western culture and history, McMurtry is perhaps the most qualified authority. Even Governor Perry seems to agree.
In 2003 and 2004, Perry declared May as Texas Writers Month and, fittingly, McMurtry’s image emblazoned the campaign’s commemorative posters for those years.
But in 2005, is Texas’ image shifting toward intolerance and homophobia?
“I don’t see it that way. I’m not pessimistic. I’m from the plains of Texas — the part that connects the Midwest with the Rocky Mountains,” McMurtry says. “I think there’s more decency in the great American middle class than most homophobic legislation would indicate. Sure, right now these are hot-button issues, but these things are not permanent.”
Raised in Wichita Falls, McMurtry became familiar with gay cowboys when he was 8 years old. That’s when he was introduced to his gay cousin’s boyfriend.
Coincidently, McMurtry’s cousin resembles Jack Twist, the fictitious “Brokeback Mountain” character played by Jake Gyllenhaal: Both worked the rodeo circuit and both were from the same area of Texas — near Childress, a small town not far from Wichita Falls.
His cousin came to mind while working on the screenplay.
“I was supposed to say ‘gentleman friend’ when referring to my cousin’s lover,” McMurtry remembers.
McMurtry’s parents encouraged him to be nice to his cousin’s partner.
“We had no reason not to be nice to him. He was a perfectly nice man,” McMurtry says. “There might have been a little awkwardness, maybe. But my parents were never angry about my cousin. Everyone’s lives went on. And they went on for 20 years.”
That’s the attitude that shapes McMurtry’s vision of Texas.
“Many American families, millions, have a gay member — like our vice president,” he says. “I’m not going to give up on the capacity of Texans to deal with controversy in a fair and compassionate way.”
The big challenge for the film is for people like Governor Perry and the folks who voted for Proposition 2 to actually watch “Brokeback Mountain.”
“I absolutely believe the film will challenge their views,” McMurtry says. “If they go see it, it will have to give them pause.”
Even with a truckload of film awards, McMurtry says the success of “Brokeback” depends solely on one thing: word of mouth. That word is already spreading.
Some right-wing critics have blasted the film, saying it should win an Oscar for promoting the “gay agenda.”
That type of criticism fuels McMurtry’s ire.
“I know what I’m confident of. And I’m totally confident,” he says. “The right wing will not win on this issue. This movie is stronger than they are.”
Even if “Brokeback Mountain” wins an Oscar for best picture, is it strong enough to play in Crawford, Texas?
“Well, the screening room is actually in the White House,” McMurtry says. “The president and his wife have gay friends. In fact, they have gay friends who stay in the White House. So I’m sure they’ll see it.”
POSTSCRIPT: A one-time exclusive...
KUSNER: Press conference apologies are so en vogue.
It seems you and Kathy Griffin have much in common this year.
If your bestie gal pal — let’s say Ann Coulter — tearfully crossed some controversial line in the sand, would you call her up and express your public support?
Or would you dare denounce (and probably abandon) her ... like Anderson Cooper?
MILO YIANNOPOULOS: If you ever compare me to Kathy Griffin again, you’re dead to me.
I’ll forgive you this time because I love Texas.
The difference of course is that I apologized for being wrong, while Kathy Griffin did a weepy fake apology to try to save her career.
Ann Coulter is always attacked for the truths she tells, she isn’t insane like Kathy Griffin and the rest of the unhinged looney left in Hollywood.
Just look at Johnny Depp!
Everyone should know I would stand with Ann both publicly and privately.
Anderson Cooper may be mostly unhinged, but he is smart enough to disassociate from a ginger harpy holding the President’s head in effigy like some kind of ugly and unfunny ISIS hag.
KUSNER: Speaking of Kathy Griffin — and being all “dangerous” and outrageous and fond of American free speech — is it okay for people to recreate her infamous art project for 2017 Halloween costumes?
Or will Milo be clutching his pearls at such a thought?
MILO YIANNOPOULOS: Kathy Griffin costumes should be a hot item this year, she’s mortifying even without the fake severed head.
Of course Kathy hasn’t bargained on the young mischief-makers of the new right, who are likely to dress up holding severed Kathy heads moreso than recreating her Trump pose.
I only clutch my pearls when my boyfriend gets rough… in fact I’d be fine with Halloween costumes involved severed Milo heads, as long as I look really hot and the sunglasses are accurate.