In 1974 McWilliams released The Thorn, an allegedly blasphemous he had directed which starred Bette Midler as the Virgin Mary and unknown actor John Bassberger as Jesus Christ. Midler had made the film before becoming nationally famous. This is John Bassberger's only known film role. Peter McWilliams is credited as "Peter Alexander" in the film. The Thorn, which is 93 minutes in length and rated R, has also been released as The Divine Mr. J.
The Thorn is Peter McWilliams' (or Peter Alexander's) only known film credit. He later became better known as an author.
From: George Mair, Bette: An Intimate Biography of Bette Midler, Birch Lane Press/Carol Publishing Group: Secaucus, NJ (1995), page 96:
Now an impulsive moment in Canada that had occurred when she was on tour in 1971 was about to ambush [Bette Midler's] career. A filmmaker who called himself, variously, Peter Alexander McWilliams, Peter Alexander, and Peter McWilliams convinced her to do a twelve-minute appearance in his sixteen-millimeter film satire of religion entitled A Story Too Often Told or The Greatest Story Overtold, which seemed to ridicule Jesus Christ and Christianity. Alexander/McWilliams sniffed big profits the minute Bette Midler became famous. It provided him with an opportunity to exploit the star's appearance, as others had when Hedy Lamarr swam nude in an early film... Midler was vulnerable and could be accused of being prejudiced, anti-Christian, and blasphemous, all of which would offend record buyers and concertgoers.From: Hank Schafer, short user review of "The Thorn" on "The Thorn" webpage, on IMDb.com website (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165981/; viewed 8 October 2005):
To exploit Midler's new stardom, Alexander/McWilliams needed to show the film commercially, and that meant borrowing forty thousand dollars to transfer the sixteen-millimeter movie onto the thirty-five-millimeter film used in movie house projectors. He did so and cast around for a place to exhibit it. His film suddenly surfaced in New York -- the stronghold of Bette's public support -- at the Festival Theater under a new title, The Divine Miss M, designed to capitalize on the Midler appearance. The advertisement promoting the film declared that the movie was made "in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and Woody Alien," and that it would open May 24 at the Festival Theater, Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue. Promoted as the world premiere of Bette Midler's film debut, the movie was hyped as "a religious satire -- MORE THAN A MOVIE -- It's a happening."
Bette was in France and not immediately aware of what was happening, but Russo was in New York. He instantly counterattacked by flooding the media with press releases and public statements attacking the exploitative nature of the film and the moral motives of the promoters. He worked behind the scenes to undercut the film's showing and made those connected with it contemplate
the cost of taking on an important star like Bette. Russo believed his aggressive and quick action saved Bette's career. For a Jewish woman performer to have offended Christian audiences by blaspheming Jesus Christ may have hurt Bette beyond rescue, but happily, because of Russo, it didn't happen that way.
Russo attacked on every front he could think of: legal, financial, and public relations. Legally he marshaled the lawyers to go into court and get an injunction. Alexander not only advertised in the newspapers, he ran radio ads on stations that played Midler records. Financially, Russo was in touch with Alexander to see if a deal could be made to squash the showing. And when the opening occurred, Russo personally picketed the theater wearing a sandwich board. As Russo recalls the incident:Peter McWilliams had made this movie -- he's now a famous author. He made this thing, then tried to open it up on Fifty-sixth Street as her [Bette's] first feature film. They had full-page ads claiming it was her first feature. It was lies and she was hardly even in the movie.Aaron won a little on several fronts. The legal action resulted in toning down the ads so that they didn't make the film sound like a Midler extravaganza, and the picketing choked off box-office sales. The film slunk out of town with little damage to the Midler reputation.
She was in France with her boyfriend, Gautier, which made me miserable because I was in love with her. Anyway, I made a sandwich board and went to the theater at eight in the morning because the first show was at noon. I hired a couple of other people to join me. Basically, the sandwich board said, "I'm Aaron Russo, Bette's manager, and this picture was made many years ago. Bette doesn't want you to see it and she's hardly even in it. Don't waste your money." I stood out there for six days in the rain. It was totally out of devotion. I felt it was my duty. She was my artist and I wanted to protect her.
What was really funny was business associates who would pass by -- because it was on Fifty-seventh Street, pretty busy street, and they'd look and almost be past me when they'd hear my voice and say, "Aaron, is that you?"
Four years later Peter McWilliams would write The Personal Computer Book, which became a runaway bestseller in the early 1980s, and he founded Prelude Press, a very successful self-publishing operation. Still, he continued to get involved in controversy, with the most notorious being his involvement and dedication to John-Roger, a former Rosemead (California) high school teacher who founded the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.
In 1978 McWilliams attended a personal growth seminar where he was introduced to John-Roger. Ten years later McWilliams was depressed about a friend who died from a rare form of tuberculosis and was scared he might have the disease. He turned to John-Roger, who promised to keep McWilliams alive and healthy if McWilliams would list John-Roger as coauthor of all the books he wrote and published and give him half of the profits.
"As amazing as it sounds," McWilliams said, "he actually had me believing he had power over life and death, health and illness. Realizing I actually believed all this stuff is humiliating."
It was so humiliating that McWilliams stopped paying the money to John-Roger, who is now suing him for $400,000. John-Roger is more recently noted for his connection with biographer Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington, the wife of California Senate candidate Michael Huffington. McWilliams's most recent book is Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society (1994).
I too, am surprised to see this listed on IMDB - the last time I checked it wasn't here. I have a copy of this film on VHS - probably one of five or six that were sold nationwide... this film belongs in the "so bad it's good" category. Apparently shot on 16MM stock, Bette and a cast of unknowns portray the life of Christ. The acting is abominable. The plot, what there is of it, is pretty lame - most of it is discussion on the building of 'crosses', and no, that's not what you might think. Bette is somewhat funny in her portrayal of the Virgin Mary as a Jewish Mother, and to anyone who might be offended by that - think about it, what else would Mary have been? An old Dan Ackroyd SNL sketch comes to mind when discussing this film, the one where he played Leonard Pinth Garnell, the host of "Bad Cinema"... this film could easily have been one of his features. All that aside, it's still one of my favorite guilty pleasures!