The Bootleg Files: The Divine Mr. J

BOOTLEG FILES 749: “The Divine Mr. J” (1971 religious satire starring Bette Midler as the Virgin Mary).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

On a VHS label in 1984.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Legal threats by Bette Midler have kept this out of circulation.


In May 1974, newspapers in New York City began to carry advertisements for a film opening at the Festival Theater called “The Divine Mr. J.” The advertisements alerted moviegoers this was the film debut of Bette Midler, who achieved her career breakthrough two years earlier with the album “The Divine Miss M,” and the caricature of Midler used on her eponymous second album was the featured image of the film’s promotion.

There were several problems with this advertisement, not the least being that “The Divine Mr. J” was not Midler’s film debut – in 1966, she had an uncredited bit part in the epic “Hawaii.” Nor did Midler appear in this film with intention of being its star, and she did not authorize the use of her album cover art for the advertisement.

Midler arranged for several of her fans to distribute copies of her “personal statement” to anyone seeking admission to the theater, and that document claimed she appeared in a few sequences “several years ago in the very early stages of my career” and that she considered the production to be “dreadful.” Midler’s manager, Aaron Russo, sought to stop the exhibition by suing the film’s distributor in New York Supreme Court, claiming the marketing highlighting a Midler starring role was false advertising.

Why all of the fuss? “The Divine Mr. J” was actually a 1971 endeavor shot in 16mm on a microbudget by first-time film talent in suburban Detroit. Writer-director Peter McWilliams, working under the pseudonym Peter Alexander, was aware that Midler’s music career was beginning to catch its groove and he paid her $250 to fly to Michigan for a 10-minute role in his feature. His hunch paid off and by 1974 he was able to raise funds to blow up the film to 35mm and secure National Entertainment Corp. as a distributor.

But the real problem was that Midler had was the film’s subject: it was a broad and vulgar comedy about the life of Jesus. In the early 1970s, Jesus was still a taboo target when it came to movie comedies – even the notorious Luis Buñuel significantly pulled punches while incorporating Jesus as a character into his insouciant 1969 satire “The Milky Way.” And while the theatrical musicals “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” presented the Gospels in an irreverent manner, neither dared to go as far as McWilliams with jokes that were unapologetically blasphemous.

“The Divine Mr. J” opens in Heaven, although it looks like a rather commonplace public garden. The film’s on-screen narrator is the Angel Fred, a deadpan character who explains that he wound up in Heaven following a fatal motorcycle accident. Angel Fred has a conversation with God, played by McWilliams doing a Harpo Marx imitation, and he explains that a film on Jesus’ life has been made. God is initially unhappy that He has a tiny role, but agrees to appear in the opening credits that spoofs the MGM titles by roaring like a lion under the banner “Metro Golda Meir.”

This retelling of the sacred story takes place in a modern setting, and is put into motion when a rabbi named Gabriel tricks a virgin named Mary that he is an angel sent by God carry the deity’s child. Mary isn’t the brightest crayon in the box – she reads the National Enquirer, believes God is a woman and later naively explains to her husband Joseph how Gabriel collects money from other “angels” to have sex with her. Joseph, an incompetent would-be inventor, doesn’t seem concerned with Mary’s carnal activities. When trying to come up with a name for the child, Joseph accidentally slams his hand in a desk and curses aloud “Jesus Christ” – to which Mary declares that is a perfect name. Yes, that is the kind of humor on display here.

The film pinballs across the life of Jesus with unsubtle humor, dropping references to the reign of “Herod Antipasto” and replacing the Three Kings with a trio of ridiculously effeminate men referred to as queens – and instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the baby Jesus is given a sled with “Rosebud” painted on its boards. John the Baptist is a flasher in a dirty trench coat who sprays the contents of a seltzer bottle on those who doubt his ministry. Mary Magdalene is chased by an angry crowd across a lawn in a manner reminiscent of the closing credits in Benny Hill’s television show while the adult Jesus is a cigarette smoking womanizer who consults with an astrologer and gives in to his mother’s demands to turn water into wine for her personal consumption. Midler manages to get in a couple of bars of “Got a Date with an Angel,” which marks her first on-screen musical segment.

McWilliams slices clips from old flicks into his offering, with scenes from the Babylon segment of “Intolerance” to enhance Herod’s hedonism and an old-school chorus line accompanying Salome’s celebrated dance. Far less endearing is a brutally unfunny joke about Holocaust gas chambers and a Last Supper scene when the Disciples drop their food on a buffet table and scatter in disgust when Jesus refers to the bread and wine as His body and blood. The Crucifixion occurs while the Disciples play Monopoly at the foot of the cross and a seedy salesman peddles souvenirs of the ongoing deicide, and a pregnant teen girl waves goodbye to the dying Jesus who left her with a new life to raise.

McWilliams initially titled the film as “The Greatest Story Overtold” and somehow arranged for a 1971 screening at the Detroit Institute of Art, which was no mean feat considering the amateurish nature of this endeavor. Three years later when Midler’s career was sizzling and the film was retitled as “The Divine Mr. J” for its New York premiere. But hostile reviews and Midler’s lawsuit threat prevented the film from gaining further release. “The Divine Mr. J” re-emerged via another theatrical distributor, the tiny Rochelle Films, for a scant 1980 release and Magnum Entertainment put it out on VHS video as “The Thorn” (a dumb riff on Midler’s “The Rose”) in 1984. But the VHS release also gave exaggerated prominence to Midler in its promotion, with new artwork putting her face on a Renaissance-style painting of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Another threat of lawsuits from Midler resulted in the film being withdrawn from home entertainment release.

McWilliams would never make another film, although he would enjoy a successful career as a writer until his death in 2000. Two other members of the production would also go on to the proverbial bigger-and-better: Fred LaBour, who played the Angel Fred, later became part of the country-western comedy group Riders in the Sky while Jay Cassidy, the film’s editor, would go to Hollywood and become a three-time Oscar-nominated editor.

“The Divine Mr. J” has yet to emerge on DVD or Blu-ray, and it seems unlikely that it will as long as Midler hangs the threat of a lawsuit over the parties that now own the film rights. Copies of the VHS release can be found online and the whole silly thing can be found in an unauthorized YouTube posting taken from the VHS copy (complete with an “adjust your tracking” screen flash). But unless you are magnificently obsessed with all things Bette Midler, it’s best to approach this stupid claptrap in the manner that Midler describes how God is watching us: from a distance.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to the award-wining podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday.