Yet Another Turner Turnabout - Or Is It?
by L. Brent Bozell III
Pigeonholing Ted Turner, the party-hearty America's
Cup-winning yacht skipper, cable superstation pioneer, and owner of...well,
New Mexico, is risky business.
In 1980, he launched, amidst giggles from the broadcast
networks, CNN. A year later came the Headline News cable network, and the
snickers turned to laughter from the experts who said his vision for cable was
doomed to failure. In 1985 came his most audacious gambit to date: he
denounced the liberal bias of the networks and, forging an alliance with Jesse
Helms, tried to buy CBS. The takeover bid failed, and carrying over a billion
dollars in personal debt, a badly wounded Turner retreated.
Only to re-emerge as a left-wing activist. Through
high-profile documentaries like "Portrait of the Soviet Union" and
outrageous statements he cozied up to the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Fidel
Castro. He crusaded for abortion rights, airing "Abortion: For
Survival" while ridiculing pro-lifers as "bozos" and
"idiots"; he called Christianity "a religion for losers"
and dismissed the Ten Commandments as "obsolete." Many believed
Turner's transformation to radical ideologue was complete when he married Jane
Fonda in 1991.
Lost in the white-heat fury of political discourse was
another side of Mr. Turner. Founder of a series of entertainment networks and
owner of several movie companies, Turner has made a genuine effort to improve
the quality of television programming for families. (A glaring exception is
his leftist eco-cartoon "Captain Planet and the Planeteers.") The
staple offerings on WTBS, his superstation, are "Andy Griffith Show"
reruns and Atlanta Braves games. Turner Network Television (TNT) has shown
Biblical miniseries like "Abraham," "Moses," and
"Joseph"; "Samson and Delilah " is next. He produced the
highly acclaimed Civil War film "Gettysburg," released to theaters
in 1993 and shown on TNT the next year.
Now, Turner's fighting again. But this time his critics are
on the left.
First, he caught flak this spring when he canceled plans to
air the telefilm "Bastard Out of Carolina" because of its graphic
treatment of child sexual abuse. (In one scene, a man punches his
twelve-year-old stepdaughter, then rapes her.) Apparently, when TNT bought the
rights to the novel of the same name, it had in mind a version of the story
suitable for basic cable, which clearly is not what director Anjelica Huston
envisioned. Eventually the pay-cable channel Showtime acquired
"Bastard" and will air it in mid-December.
The light shower over "Bastard" was followed by a
raucous thunderstorm concerning "Crash," a Canadian movie about
people sexually excited by...automobile wrecks. "Crash," according
to Degen Pener of Entertainment Weekly magazine, "involves [actors Holly]
Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, and James Spader in seemingly endless ambisexual
couplings. Yet it is not without admirers." Of course it isn't. This is
Hollywood, after all. Writer/director Paul Schrader had nothing to do with
"Crash" but nonetheless touted it as "sort of the acme of
filmmaking," perhaps, one supposes, in the tradition of "The Last
Temptation of Christ," which screenplay he did write.
"Crash" was slated for release in early October,
but Turner, who owns its distribution company, Fine Line Features, saw it and
"yanked it off the schedule. It bothered me," he stated at a
November 4 luncheon at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.
"The people with warped minds are gonna like it, though. I mean, it's
really weird...Imagine the first teenager who decides to have sex while
driving a hundred miles an hour, and probably the movie will get 'em to do
The withdrawal of "Crash" elicited predictable
squawking from predictable quarters. Its director, David Cronenberg, huffed
that Turner's action "amount[ed] to behind-the-scenes [what else?]
censorship." Co-star Hunter was even more eloquent, accusing Turner of a
"moral fascism" which was "reminiscent of Jesse Helms."
As it happens, Fine Line will issue "Crash" in
March, reportedly because when Turner bought the company, he agreed to leave
ultimate creative decisions to its hands-on executives. Nonetheless, Turner
has put the industry on notice, and from what I understand from his
associates, we can expect more of the same from him in the future.
Turner had other things to say at that New York luncheon:
"The test of a [television] program?is," he suggested, "'Is
this a program that you would be proud and happy to have your children sit and
watch, and is it a program that if your mother and father saw it...would they
be proud of you?'"
Those were basically the same words Ted Turner used in 1984,
at a conference sponsored by a conservative think tank, to an audience that
responded with a standing ovation. Like I said, a tough man to pigeonhole.
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