The grassroots keep sending messages to Hollywood, but usually nobody’s home. Oblivious to real lives outside the California bubble, the masters of the fanciful, the absurd and the bizarre wouldn’t read the message, anyway.
But the town that tinsel made is agog, if only temporarily agog, by the triumphant return of “Roseanne,” the ancient television comedy that went off the air 21 years ago. The first revival episode drew more viewers than its farewell finale two decades ago.
“While nostalgia was expected to bring in eyeballs,” Deadline Hollywood, an aggregator of entertainment news, breathlessly reported on the morning after, “no one predicted such a huge amount on premiere night for a blue-collar family sitcom with a Donald Trump-supporting protagonist, especially among the younger generation demographic. But then, few predicted Trump would become the Republican nominee and would win the presidential election when he first announced his candidacy.”
In fact, Hollywood and many correct-thinking Democrats still prefer not to believe it. The premiere of the resurrection of Roseanne Barr of “Roseanne” delivered its highest ratings in Tulsa, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis and Indianapolis — just those places in flyover country where Hillary Clinton, Hollywood’s gift of the magi, lost the 2016 election.
Bicoastalism survived as expected. Neither of the two top markets gave “Roseanne” much of a look. New York was not in the top 20, and Los Angeles did not make it to even to the top 30. These markets were left looking from afar on the working-class audience that both Hollywood (and the Democrats) crave.
It’s an audience with the bucks by which Hollywood measures everything. Art is nice, but not necessary. Junk and trash, with spaceships and lasers and bombs and bullets spraying blood all over the screen, always sells, particularly to the children demographic to whom Hollywood aims its art. Hollywood is only capable of being agog about one thing at a time, but some of the wiser heads have noticed the remarkable growth in the size of the audience for “faith-based films.”
The surprise this year is “I Can Only Imagine,” a story about an abused child, surviving a violent, drunken father and who grew up to write the hit song of the title and reconciled with his abusive father after he had a dramatic conversion to repentance and a new life in Christ. The movie was aimed not at Sunday school but at the wider audience, without giving short shrift to the power of authentic faith.
“I Can Only Imagine” was released two weeks ago by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and put into 1,600 theaters coast to coast, on the same weekend with “Tomb Raider.” It was expected to gross between $2 million and $4 million. When it took in $6 million on its first day, the weekend estimates were raised to $14 million, and in the event collected $17 million, behind only “Black Panther” and “Tomb Raider.” These were numbers that Hollywood could respect, if not the message of the movie.
“I Can Only Imagine” set out to be a movie about faith, but not a “faith movie.” The cast includes Dennis Quaid, now 63, as the abusive father. In real life it was he who wrote the title song, which he says was suggested by his own recovery from drug addiction. Mr. Quaid established himself as a Hollywood staple, notably in “The Right Stuff” and “Breaking Away.”
The cast further includes Cloris Leachman, 91, as the devoted granny. She won an Oscar as the neglected coach’s wife in “The Last Picture Show” a generation ago. The movie’s message, told without preaching to the choir, is the power of faith and redeeming love. “What moved me,” says Mr. Quaid, “was my character of Arthur [the once-abusive father], and how he found grace. This is the beautiful thing about the ‘good news’ that Jesus was talking about. How simple it is. There really is redemption, and that was the inspiration for the song.”
Other faith-friendly, if not necessarily faith-based, movies are on the way. One from Universal, a big-budget studio, is “Mary Magdalene,” an early follower of Christ whose story is told in the Gospels. However, it’s the usual Hollywood mish-mash with Mary Magdalene as an early feminist, and before the studio is through with the story she may be a retired Pan Am stewardess fighting off pirates. Buyer, beware.
Another is “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” the rest of the story about Louis Zamperini, the Olympian who barely survived the torture of a Japanese prison camp. He came home to be converted to faith in Christ at Billy Graham’s famous first tent revival in Los Angeles in 1949.
The inspiring stories of faith are many, and many are ripping good reads. There’s money in them for Hollywood. All they ask is honest telling.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.