The Scientology building in Hollywood, California (photo courtesy of HBO)

Why So Many Celebrities Are Scientologists

One explanation is hidden in plain sight: the way the cult mirrors the star-obsessed, profit-driven culture of Hollywood.

BY Eileen Jones

Sea Org, Scientology’s equivalent of a monastic order, provides an army of virtual slave labor for its celebrity converts, getting 40 cents an hour to satisfy Cruise’s lightest whim. When Cruise had a fantasy of running through a pastoral meadow with Nicole Kidman, Sea Org peons planted the meadow, then ripped it up and replanted it when it didn’t pass Miscavige’s inspection.

The Church of Scientology has attempted to discredit the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief in various ways since it made a pleasantly shocking debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January: official statements of repudiation by Church representatives, hundreds of tweets, and a YouTube video smearing not just director Alex Gibney’s credibility but his father’s as well. The video’s female narrator informs us in melodramatically grim tones that the late Frank Gibney merely masqueraded as a legitimate journalist while working as part of a covert CIA program spreading propaganda through various media, and “apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” 

Still, it’s pretty mild stuff, given the church’s fearful reputation for all-out attacks on perceived enemies, and not likely to do much other than provide some free publicity for Going Clear, which airs on HBO this Sunday at 8 pm. 

For those who know almost nothing about the sinister side of Scientology—presuming there is any other side than the sinister side—Going Clear will be a terrific revelation. Gibney has distilled a wealth of info from Lawrence Wright’s 560-page expose, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and goosed it up with visuals. We get the on-camera testimony of high-profile defectors; the bizarre life trajectory of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (from incredibly prolific pulp sci-fi writer to phony war hero to paranoid cult leader); the weird, top-secret Hubbard-authored origin story about humanity’s beginnings on the slave-planet Earth; the group’s triumphant legal crusade to achieve tax-exempt religion status; the perks showered on celebrity members like Tom Cruise; the abusive punishments of errant members; and the notorious vendettas against apostates. 

But for those who’ve paid any significant attention to the widely reported scandals that have engulfed Scientology with remarkable regularity over the years, this documentary will seem like—as Yogi Berra put it—déjà vu all over again.  

Nor is Going Clear a revelatory exercise in filmmaking—nothing interesting is being done with the documentary form here. Gibney has made a number of respected documentaries—Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013)—but he’s not exactly a wow as a stylist. Which reminds me—whatever happened to that scintillating era of the feature film documentary when high-profile auteurs like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris and Terry Zwigoff and Michael Moore routinely made challenging, must-see non-fiction films that people flocked to see? Seems like yesterday, and yet here we are back in the swamp of the informative but unexciting “synthesis documentary” with its boringly shot talking heads, its overly emphatic musical soundtrack dictating how we should feel about things, and its effaced director as the man behind the curtain that we’re all supposed to ignore.

The interface of celebrities and Scientology provides the showiest part of the documentary, and gives the film its main source of fascination. Speculation about who’s a Scientologist among successful Hollywood actors has long been a luridly enjoyable source of gossip. Google “celebrity Scientologists” and you’ll find multiple online sites listing who’s reportedly in (or in and then out again.) It is no mystery why Scientology wants to attract celebrities, but it is an ongoing mystery to the general public why the rich and famous, presumably the most free and autonomous individuals in a capitalist society, would tie themselves to a highly controversial and controlling religion. What pulls in major stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and what keeps them in the fold?

L. Ron Hubbard established “Project Celebrity” in 1955, with a list of major stars who might be persuaded to put an attractive face on the new organization. Later came Scientology’s “Celebrity Centres” described by church officials in lofty language as constituting “a special Church of Scientology that would cater to…the artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures, and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world.”  The lavish center in Los Angeles is known as the likeliest place to go star-gazing in hopes of catching sight of a famous Scientologist, perhaps Kirstie Alley, Juliette Lewis, Priscilla Presley, Giovanni Ribisi, Jenna Elfman, Elizabeth Moss, Jason Lee, Beck, or Isaac Hayes. 

Briefly mentioned in the film are the celebrities such as Leonard Cohen and the Grateful Dead, who were temporarily drawn in by the church’s 1970s siren song, “Get high without drugs!” The film also shows interview footage of a much younger, slimmer Travolta praising a religion where the “joy is the operative concept” and which allows one to imagine “a world without war, a world without criminality, a world without insanity.” 

Beyond these initial lures, the film hints at another reason for the cult's appeal to celebrities: Scientology provides sucking up on a vast scale. Early on we see remarkable footage of a Scientology event where Cruise leads a huge crowd of the faithful in a salute to a portrait of “LRH.” The massive hall where this takes place resembles a cross between the tackiest Academy Awards backdrop you’ve ever seen and the Nuremburg Rally. Later, we’re shown the main event, the ceremony where Miscavige presents Cruise with the “Freedom Medal of Valor,” invented just for him. A ridiculously large disc hanging from a fat multicolored ribbon, it looks like a supersized Olympic gold medal, a child’s idea of a glorious tribute. 

We’re told that members are instructed, “You better have a fucking smile on your face,” when Cruise shows up. Sea Org, Scientology’s equivalent of a monastic order, provides an army of virtual slave labor for its celebrity converts, getting 40 cents an hour to satisfy Cruise’s lightest whim: One defector attests that “they tricked out all his cars and his motorcycles.” And when Cruise had a fantasy of running through a pastoral meadow with Nicole Kidman, Sea Org peons planted the meadow, then ripped it up and replanted it when it didn’t pass Miscavige’s inspection. Later, the film reveals, when Kidman was judged a “Suppressive Person” and her marriage to Cruise broken up on Miscavige’s orders, a new girlfriend, a pre-med student named Nazanin Boniadi (who would later become a sucessful actor), was recruited from the ranks of the faithful, given an expensive makeover, and delivered to Cruise like an old-world concubine. 

Still, that’s an insufficient answer. Cruise can presumably get girlfriends on his own, and the whole world is prepared to suck up to a star of Cruise’s wattage, no 40 cents an hour required.

Going Clear posits the rest of the answer, the same one that’s been the source of gossip for years: Stars stick with Scientology because of the meticulously kept notes, recordings and videos from E-meter “auditing” sessions that are central to the religion’s practice, and make for ideal blackmail material. Going Clear opens with a close-up of one of Hubbard’s patented E-meters, its needle flicking, as we hear one of the insinuating questions asked of those undergoing the process of auditing: 

“Do you have a secret you’re afraid I will find out?” 

A chorus of echoing voices answers “Yes.” And indeed, what adult of any experience isn’t both horrified and fascinated by the idea of answering such a question? 

The film rushes on, not really dwelling on this or any other specific aspect of Scientology in its rush to catalog the mad inner workings of the church. But with this opening scene, the film seemed for a moment to be setting up an in-depth analysis of how Scientology attracts and holds members. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master is clearly an attempt to do just that, though when publicizing the film, Anderson was extremely coy about whether he was depicting L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.) 

Harnessing the seductive power of confession that the Catholics understood so well and tying it to pseudo-scientific technology seems like a brilliant idea, when you think about it. Instead of a priest hearing your sins and imposing an appropriate form of repentance, thus securing your immortal soul for another interlude, which is a compelling practice but smacks of the Medieval, Scientology superficially modernizes the process. Now you tell your secret fears and shames to a machine, which takes your measure. An auditor sits nearby during the session, acting as a sort of hybrid technician/ Father Confessor/Freudian analyst, taking meticulous notes, reading the meter and probing for the source of “resistance in the body that tells of emotional trauma, and methodically “clearing” you of such negativity. 

It’ll cost you, of course. But well worth it if only to have a machine that measures your levels of guilt and terror, and a practice that relieves you of both. 

This is the process that hooks people, from celebrities to ordinary members, as various defectors attest in Going Clear. Actor Jason Beghe sets out to become a champion at the process—like L. Ron Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, who is regarded as a “prodigy at auditing.” Former Scientologist Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who later became John Travolta’s handler, says she believed that Scientologists who commit to the process “had superpowers … I thought, I'd like to have superpowers.”

They’re all aiming at “going clear” and succeeding to the upper levels of the hierarchy, becoming “Operating Thetans,” ranking I – VIII. (“You can’t get any higher than OT VIII,” attests one interview subject solemnly). These euphoric super-beings—with their traumatic memories purged, their IQs shooting up, their eyesight improved, their asthma curedmove smoothly past all obstacles and get the inside story of our human origins on Earth from L. Ron Hubbard’s own scribbled notes. Director Paul Haggis, perhaps the best known of the defectors interviewed in the film, claims his incredulous reaction upon finally earning the privilege of reading Hubbard’s account was, “What the FUCK are you talking about?”

But it all begins with auditing. It was this process that so impressed writer William S. Burroughs, a very smart man and the last person you’d expect to get caught in the spell of the E-meter, which in his own words is “a sort of sloppy form of electrical brain stimulation… a lie-detector and a mind-reading machine.” He was enraptured by auditing in the early years of Scientology’s history, back in the 1950s and 1960s, and claimed, “Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.” But in the end he was repelled by “the fascist policies of Hubbard and his organization.” 

Presumably, it's at such moments of defection that auditing becomes a hold as well as a hook. It seems that Cruise and Travolta don’t dare leave because their confessed “secrets” could be made public. One former Scientologist recalls that higher-ups had ordered a “black PR” package on Travolta assembled, containing the most damning information from his audits. Travolta was canny enough to refuse to have his sessions videotaped, but the church holds the files containing notes taken during every session, as a defector describes, “in the most intimate detail.” The subject is “always encouraged … always threatened, to disclose more and more and more.” 

On the other hand, Scientology can provide a certain amount of muscle in keeping the secrets of the faithful hidden. The documentary makes clear that the famously litigious organization (its informal motto is “We never defend, we always attack”) has long dampened criticism of the organization and gossip about its members. And those who dare to pry or question or impugn are often personally harassed. We see footage of belligerent Scientologists stationed on the doorstep of former Scientology senior executive Marty Rathbun, who has gone public with charges about the church’s coercive and abusive practices.

But perhaps the simplest solution to the mystery of why stars stick with Scientology is that they feel quite comfortable in its grip. I wish Gibney had gone further in explicating how the workings of Hollywood dovetail so nicely with the workings of Scientology. Judging by what’s implicit in the film, it’s no wonder the film industry is loaded up with members. Both are rapaciously profit-seeking corporate structures; both revolve around celebrity-worship; both love displays of rank and status; both foster rampant narcissism; both set up abusive hierarchies that run on paranoia, with underlings badly treated and badly paid but afraid to speak out about it. And both rely on an amalgam of neuroses, fantasies and magical thinking—John Travolta’s not the only successful actor-Scientologist to be convinced that the process of “going clear” got him the roles he auditioned for, meaning his stardom is directly reliant on Scientology, the way some other superstitious actors might attribute success to a favorable moon or failure to Mercury in retrograde.

There’s no question that the fascination with star Scientologists is driving most of the publicity for the film, even if Gibney did drop the “Hollywood” out of Wright’s book title, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. It should be noted that his film also deals with the perplexing way so many non-stars cling to Scientology, even the most abused Sea Org members fighting to stay in “the Hole” where they’re harshly overworked, demeaned and tortured, sometimes for years on end. But let's face it: We understand pretty well how readily cowed and brainwashed people are when they have no money or power or ready access to escape routes. 

That brings us right back to stars again.

The documentary concludes by making a strong case for the importance of getting a “mouthpiece” like Cruise or Travolta to repudiate the Church of Scientology. And director Gibney and writer Lawrence Wright have both reiterated this point in interviews promoting the book and film. The Hollywood Reporter hosted a sold-out Q&A in L.A. with author Lawrence Wright where he “called upon the religion's “celebrity pitchmen” to use their “moral authority” to bring about reform in the church.”

And as the New York Post’s Page Six reports,  

Filmmaker Alex Gibney said this week that as a public face of the controversial church, Cruise “can espouse his beliefs, that’s fine. But not to address the allegations of abuse seems to me palpably irresponsible….It seems to me [Cruise] has an obligation to speak out.”

Perhaps Wright and Gibney have reasons of their own to believe that Cruise or Travolta will publicly criticize or even repudiate Scientology after decades of pugnaciously defending the church.  Though if their own claims about the probability of blackmail are true, they know it’s not likely to happen.

It’s hard to resist the cynical suspicion that though they must be perfectly aware there’s no point publicly exhorting Cruise and Travolta to come clean, they can count on the celebrity connection to sell Going Clear just like it sells Scientology.

Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

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