“There are some things about commercial film making that are in really bad taste,” Christopher Reeve told the LA Times in June 1983, passive-aggressively promoting his new blockbuster Superman film.
“For a film to be commercial,” he explained, “it must earn money, and that results in strategic planning in certain degrees — the goal being to earn even more money. When it comes to a showdown between quality and integrity and commercial expedience, guess which wins?”
Oh, and go see Superman III, he absolutely did not add.
But Chris Reeve has always been conflicted, ever since he signed up to become a man of steel. The fame was attractive and it was fun exploring the character, the first couple of times. The problem is that at heart Reeve is a snob — see the “my dad thought I was cast in Man and Superman” anecdote — and he’d rather be on the stage, telling important stories. So after filming Superman II in 1980, he had the lead in the Broadway opening of Fifth of July, as a gay paraplegic Vietnam vet. That’s the kind of part that he really wanted: something challenging and meaningful, with multiple adjectives.
In 1982, he worked on two movies — Deathtrap, and Monsignor — before his inevitable return to duty for Superman III. He knew that Deathtrap was a bit of a lark, but Monsignor was the project that he was really hoping would lift him out of the distasteful world of people who make movies for money.
Deathtrap is a clever little comedy-thriller: the story of a broken-down old playwright, his dippy wife, and a handsome young man who comes to visit to collaborate on a play. The story is a pleasing post-modern puzzle box that ran for four years on Broadway — a one-set, two-act mystery with five characters about people trying to write a one-set, two-act mystery with five characters — and it never lets you forget how clever it is for a minute.
Reeve’s character turns out to be gay, which some people thought was a big deal, and there was some talk about “Superman kissing a guy” that didn’t really amount to much. I suppose it could have had some impact on Reeve’s career if it was a believable romantic drama about a gay couple, but in Deathtrap, homosexuality is obviously just a twist that moves the machinery of the clockwork plot. Reeve is just fine in the movie, although he doesn’t really settle on how gay he should be. There’s one remarkable moment where he puts his hand on his hip and cattily sneers about “that bitch Nan Wesson,” and then his very next line is delivered in his typical masculine voice.
But never mind that, Monsignor was the big one: the dramatic film that he figured would establish Christopher Reeve as a serious movie star who could handle complex characters. This did not actually turn out to be the case.
Monsignor is explicitly a star vehicle; Reeve’s character, Father John Flaherty, appears in almost every scene, and we are expected to find him fascinating, which he is, in a way. He’s an Irish Catholic priest from Brooklyn, and we see him with his lifelong best friend Ludo Varese, who has mob ties. Father Flaherty spends six minutes in the trenches of World War II as an Army chaplain who impulsively grabs a machine gun and kills a bunch of Nazis, and then it’s off to the Vatican for a cushy new job.
Flaherty is recruited somehow by a cranky old American bishop to work at the Vatican because the young priest has a graduate degree in finance, the first of many out-of-nowhere surprises that the film springs on its audience at a steady pace. The bishop cynically briefs Flaherty about working his way through Vatican politics, which is apparently cut-throat and cliquey.
Flaherty manages to charm the cardinal by, I don’t know, being slightly fresh and mischievous, and pretty soon he’s got his hands on the Vatican’s books. There’s a sense that his good looks play a role in his speedy advancement, but in the vague general way that good-looking people tend to get things that they want, like a role in this movie.
Father Flaherty’s old friend Varese shows up in Rome somehow, and he’s in charge of the black market that apparently operates within walking distance of the Vatican. Varese’s still officially in the Army, but his duties appear to be to bribe officers into giving him discounted Army surplus cigarettes and candy bars in bulk quantities that he can sell for everyone’s profit.
This deviation from traditional ethical standards does not bother Father Flaherty even a tiny little bit. He smiles knowingly as his friend leads him through acres of hot Hershey bars, explaining the intricacy of the Mafia ties that put him in charge of this racket. Flaherty sips his glass of stolen champagne, and toasts the success of Varese’s ventures.
Literally one minute later, Flaherty pitches a scheme to the cardinal to solve the Vatican’s cash flow problems by using the commissary to buy goods from the US army, and then sell it on the black market. “Eminence, the black market is everywhere,” Flaherty urges. “We can’t stop it. I am merely suggesting that we… divert money from crime, and give it to the Church, where it will be used for good, and not for evil.”
And guess what. He says yes! Everybody says yes in this movie, to everything that Flaherty says and does. He has zero problems setting up a thriving Vatican branch office of the Mafia. He doesn’t even break a sweat.
Once the war’s over, Flaherty visits Don Appolini, a local mob boss, to pitch a money laundering scheme: the Don loans money from his Swiss bank account to the Vatican, the Vatican invests it in real estate and world currency, and the Don gets back clean money with a profit. He says yes too.
The crazy thing about this movie is that there is not a single moment in the entire thing where Father Flaherty expresses even a tiny bit of doubt or regret about leading an increasingly vast criminal enterprise out of the Vatican. It literally never comes up. In every sequence, Flaherty decides to do something insane, pursues that goal with confidence, and always succeeds. He has a satisfied smirk on his face the whole time.
There’s a nun in it, too, which I almost don’t even feel like talking about, because it’s so depressing. He meets her out on the road somewhere when he’s not wearing his priest costume, and follows her around town to find out when she’ll be away from the other nuns. He approaches her, they talk, and then they head for Varese’s place, and straight for the bedroom. She starts taking her top off almost immediately, explaining that she only has an hour before the other nuns will start wondering where she is.
He never tells her that he’s a priest, for some reason that I can’t quite figure, so they have scenes where she says that she knows he has a secret, and it’s standing between them. “There is fear,” she explains, “and fear frightens love.” This does not help.
After a while, the audience begins to wonder: Is it really that hard not to be a priest? Like, if your inclinations and career goals are so out of touch with traditional religious observance, why don’t you leave the Vatican, and just become Bernie Madoff? There are so many off-ramps provided for talented swindlers, who want to go and not be a priest anymore.
And I haven’t even touched on the unbelievable insult to the Catholic Church, which is portrayed as a welcoming haven for dissolute money-laundering made priests, because frankly I couldn’t care less about the Catholic Church, or how it feels. It’s fine, they don’t care about me either. But you do have to wonder who the target market for this film could possibly be, especially in 1982 with the rise of the Christian right. I don’t know who was supposed to find this effective.
But Christopher Reeve thought it was his big break. “Father Flaherty,” he told an interviewer, “is more like me than anyone I have ever played. I understand him. I understand his fear. And I think I have given a more complex performance than anything I’ve done.” That was before the movie came out, and everybody hated it.
After it was all over, Roger Ebert wrote, “I do not object to the filmmaker’s desire to make a film of overwhelming cynicism about the Vatican power structure. I simply object to the film they have made.” Everybody else did, too.
My favorite anecdote about Monsignor was in a syndicated newspaper article interviewing Reeve, director Frank Perry and producer Frank Yablans:
Perry attended the first public screening of Monsignor here in New York, and was disturbed by the fact that some people in the audience laughed in places where no comedy was intended.
“I didn’t intend that at all,” the director says. “I felt those scenes where they laughed were good and well-played. But it won’t give me sleepless nights. I think it was just nervous laughter by some kids in the back of the theater.”
Yablans says the laughter came from people on drugs, and added that the theater was hot and overcrowded, besides.
So here’s Chris a year later, speaking his mind in a peculiar TV interview supposedly promoting Superman III:
Do you feel, Chris, that the critics were unfair to you, regarding Monsignor?
No. It was a horrible picture, and it deserved to be lambasted. How’s that for an honest answer? [chuckles] But it’s true. It was a very bad movie, and the thing was, it was a needlessly bad movie. I say that because we had the material, and it was misused, and the needs and taste of the American public were very badly played down to.
And I simply object to a film like that, because it’s a waste of the right material, but also it makes serious allegations about a religious figure, and fails to prove it. And boy, anything where you fail to make your point… You can call anybody anything, as long as you prove it. And I just believe in fair play. It just wasn’t fair, that movie.
Who was to blame?
Well, I don’t want to name names, you know. It’s corporate decision making. Let’s leave it at that.
But you were such a pro, Chris, that you went ahead and you did the promotional things that you had to do. That must have been so difficult.
It was. It was. Particularly because I don’t approve of it, you know? And yet, I am the actor, and since I carry the vehicle, people may think I’m responsible for the content. But I’m not.
And I will always know what Monsignor could have been. I’m just going to have to live with the fact that the rest of the world won’t know it. You know? But it’s, “next case”.
They will know, because I’m going to run this interview just like you said. Chris, lovely to see you again. Congratulations, you have another hit with Superman III, and maybe I’ll see you on Superman IV.
I don’t think so. But you’ll see me other places.
Okay. Thank you.
4.7: Ones and Zeroes
Monsignor is not mentioned at all in Reeve’s 1999 autobiography, Still Me. Not even once.
Reeve discusses everything else that he did in the 70s and 80s — all the movies, plays, TV series and TV movies — and he includes movies that he acknowledges were disappointments or mistakes, like Somewhere In Time, Street Smart and Switching Channels. But according to Christopher Reeve, Monsignor never happened.
4.7: Ones and Zeroes
— Danny Horn