In 1998 the Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi was scheduled to premiere at the Manhattan Theater Club.

The play is about a group of gay men whose lives mirror those of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Extremist Christian groups were offended by the play, of course without having seen or read it, and some threatened to do violence to stop or disrupt the play.

The Manhattan Theater Club, citing security concerns, canceled the play’s production.

Athol Fugard’s play, The Captain’s Tiger, was scheduled to be shown by the theater also. Fugard said that unless the Manhattan Theater Club went ahead with the controversial McNally production, he would pull his play from the theater as well. Athol Fugard is South African, but he was the only real American in the room when it came to not caving in to threats.

The Manhattan Theater Club’s cancelation of Corpus Christi was a shameful caving to threats but was quickly corrected after Fugard and other members of the theater community and public protested.

Today it is movie theaters that are engaging in self censorship and not only in New York. Sony Pictures said it was scrapping its planned release of its comedy The Interview because of threats against theaters and moviegoers. Unlike the world of live theater, no gestures of solidarity on the part of other Hollywood studios followed suit.

The government of North Korea is believed to be behind a high profile hacking of the movie studio’s computer systems, which have released embarrassing emails between top executives. Sony looks as if it will now release the movie for free on Crackle, its own streaming service.

Reviews of the movie have been mediocre, and now Sony executives have not only stirred up much more interest in the film and distracted from the embarrassing email scandal, they’ve worked in a great promotion for their new streaming service as well. I wouldn’t be surprise if the threats made against Sony were sent from their own executive suites.

Sony is allowed to pull any movie it wants to from the theaters. But this self censorship in the face of threats, even if it is all part of a hackneyed publicity stunt, is the worst because it shows no backbone. A government that comes in and shuts down a film is doing so because it failed to break the spirit of its people. Here we have a foreign government breaking the spirit of American studio executives over whom they have no power.

I’m hoping the studio quickly brings The Interview back and allow that pulling it was a mistake or deft exploitation of the hacking publicity. The movie is not supposed to be that good and most regular moviegoers have more compelling options. But now it’s our patriotic duty to see this movie, no matter how big of a turkey it is.

But this kind of shameless caving in, if indeed that’s what it is, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Officials from the Chinese government are routinely allowed on movie sets to advise filmmakers as to what will or won’t pass muster with government censors. How has that not sparked massive outrage? There was once a time when communists couldn’t get jobs in Hollywood, now our movie industry imports them from China to help them tailor their films for censors on the other side of the world.

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