New Billy Graham Movie Causes Family Rift

The Evangelist Billy Graham turns 90 next month, and in this final chapter of his life, a number of laudatory books and movies are scheduled for release. One of these, a biopic called "Billy: The Early Years," arrives in theaters this week, and if the present family skirmish triggered by the movie is any sign of things to come, Graham's grown children still need to fine-tune their public-relations strategy.

Gigi, who at 63 is the eldest of Billy and Ruth Graham's five children, endorsed the movie and wrote a positive blurb for its Web site. "The Early Years," which shows young Billy finding Jesus at a tent revival and meeting his beloved Ruth in college, is "very sweet," she told NEWSWEEK. "I've seen it 14 times, and I've learned something new each time." She likes the film because it presents her parents in a positive light and promotes a gospel message.

But Franklin, the fourth child, who is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, does not agree. In August he made a statement saying as much in an effort to distance the BGEA from the project. "Though Gigi has signed on to work with the producers in promotion of this project, no one else in the family supports or has endorsed the film—including [Billy] Graham, who has no personal inclination to view it," a BGEA spokesman explained in an email to NEWSWEEK. Further, the spokesman wrote, the movie contains inaccuracies about the family history. For example, Billy did not faint at Gigi's birth as the movie depicts; in fact, he was out of town. And Billy and Ruth never would have played catch, because Ruth was not athletic. Gigi disputes this. "If she never threw a baseball, she could play a mean game of croquet in her wheelchair at night," she says. "As his big sister, I would have suggested that Franklin not say anything."

Franklin's spokesman says that Franklin and Gigi maintain "a great relationship," but in this matter they "have had to agree to disagree." Ruth Graham's journal describes bitter (but probably normal) rivalry among the Graham siblings as early as 1955. "Anne [the second child] and Franklin," she wrote, "fought during the time I have with the Lord alone … grumbling, interrupting, slurring each other." Still, the question of how the children will handle their competing pet projects in Billy's name remains very much alive. "If you find out, will you let me know?" asks Gigi. Her voice, like her father's, is as sweet as sugar.