When L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in February 1954 in Los Angeles, one of his main pillars in building its membership was courting celebrities.
A year after the church was founded, it created a long list of celebrities to recruit, according to Lawrence Wright's best-selling book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief."The list reportedly included Hollywood royalty like Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, Jackie Gleason, John Ford, Bob Hope, and Howard Hughes. It's hard to find evidence of these legends ever entertaining the idea of joining the church, but it appears that Hubbard saw movie stars as a way of legitimizing Scientology.
Six decades later, Hubbard's premonition proved to be correct. Scientology, which today has only about 50,000 members, is worth over $1.2 billion, and much of its financial success is in part thanks to famous people who have fundraised, recruited, and given the church access to the upper echelon of society.
For years, two of the church's most prized endorsers have been John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
But director Alex Gibney suggests in his latest documentary for HBO, an adaptation of Wright's book called "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," that it is time for Travolta and Cruise to reassess their involvement with the church, in part because of the abuse their fellow members have allegedly endured.
The film highlights numerous instances in which church members have allegedly been abused. Members have allegedly been segregated from their families and the rest of the church to do physical labor like cleaning toilets with only a toothbrush.
In the documentary, Gibney speaks with one of Travolta's closest confidants at the church, Spanky Taylor, who says she was part of a group that was punished by the church.
Taylor says she was forced to work 30-hour shifts with little food and slept on the roof of the church's Los Angeles building. She says she was pregnant at the time and away from her infant daughter, who was placed in the church's nursery in a urine-soaked crib surrounded by fruit flies. In the movie, Taylor says she reached out to Travolta for help but never heard from him.
According to the film, Cruise has also turned a blind eye to the harassment suffered by Sea Organization members, the clergy of Scientology who reportedly show their loyalty by signing billion-year contracts but get paid only about 40 cents an hour for their services. The film alleges that the presents Cruise receives on behalf of the church — like a beautiful airplane hangar or luxury limousine — are delivered on the sweat of Sea Org members.
So why are Cruise and Travolta still in Scientology?
The film alleges that the church would disclose the celebrities' deepest, darkest confessions to the tabloids if they ever tried to leave the church.
That's because the pair have reportedly spent hours and hours of their lives submitting to Scientology audits, the church's form of spiritual counseling.
When Business Insider talked to Gibney last week at HBO's New York offices, the director said he felt it was the duty of Cruise and Travolta to speak out, and he hoped the attention of "Going Clear" would make it easier for them to do so.
"I think one of the reasons we're trying to turn the spotlight on them is not to victimize them but to say you really have a responsibility," Gibney told us. "You're given an enormous amount of wealth as a movie star and with that comes a certain amount of responsibility, particularly when people are joining an organization because of you. If the popular opinion begins to swing that way, I think you can see a sea change with them."
For Cruise it may be harder to get out. The film reveals just how important he is to the church, suggesting Scientology went as far as breaking up Cruise and Nicole Kidman's marriage to bring him closer to the church after he began distancing himself around the time he and Kidman filmed Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eye's Wide Shut," in 1998.
Orchestrated by Scientology's leader, David Miscavige, the church turned the two adoptive children of Cruise and Kidman's against Kidman, according to former Scientology executives who speak in the film.
The church allegedly told the children that Kidman was a "Suppressive Person," Scientology talk for someone who's not a believer of the church, and persuaded them to completely disconnect themselves from her.
The church also allegedly tapped Kidman's phones in an effort to convince Cruise that he needed to end the relationship.
Gibney and Wright, along with former Scientology members Mike Rinder and Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis, talked more about these issues in the film recently at a New York Times "Times Talk."
"Going Clear" opens theatrically in limited release March 13 and on HBO on March 29.