Elmer Gantry, a Richard Brooks adaptation of the novel by Sinclair Lewis, introduces us to a drunk womanizing salesman and churchgoing Christian who finds his calling when he decides to combine the two, hawking old timey religion with Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons), a revivalist. She's been making quite a name for herself converting the common folk wherever she pitches her tent. It goes without saying that once Elmer spots her, he also pitches his.
Once Sharon and Elmer have joined forces, there's no stopping them. They develop a perfect good cop/bad cop salvation routine: Elmer provides the sweaty fire and shouty brimstone and Sharon swoops in later to offer the soothing sotto voce God is Love denouement. (How anyone hears her quiet words in a huge tent with all the shouting and live musical accompaniment is a mystery the film never explains.) Sharon resists Elmer's sexual swagger at first but eventually succumbs like all the other women.
Of course, if you want your sweaty god-fearing rants to be charming and your aggressive "Repents!" to actually convert women into horny disciples, you'd better look quite a lot like Burt Lancaster, one of the manliest of film stars.
In fact, I suspect how one feels about Elmer Gantry the movie would be closely tied to how one feels about Lancaster as an actor/star. It neatly boils down to which of these two arguments you agree with.
- A Doubter. Bill, Sharon's manager, doesn't trust Elmer. "Everything about you is offensive," he says to the new revivalist star. "You're a crude vulgar show off. And your vocabulary belongs in an outhouse."
- True Believer. Sharon herself, finds him disarming and charming. "You're so outrageous! I think I like you. You're amusing and you smell like a real man."
Being a loud show off or playing one successfully is a great way to win an Oscar, which Lancaster did for this preacher man star turn. Another great way to win an Oscar is to show up in a movie that's well under way and breathe new bracing life into it (See Frances McDormand in Fargo and Renée Zellweger in Cold Mountain for polar opposite examples of the same trick.) I had never seen Elmer Gantry before and I was shocked that Shirley Jones, who won for playing Lulu the hooker, doesn't even show up until almost exactly the halfway mark. It's a two and a half hour movie! Lulu's revenge plot (Elmer has skeletons, y'see) derails Gantry's burgeoning success until Lulu reveals that heart of gold. She's a hooker so you know she has one. It's the movies!
Lulu's schizo back and forth between loving and hating Elmer and her strange waffling between Christianity and sacrilege (in one scene she'll make a dirty joke about God, in the next she'll talk about the Bible with a beatific look on her face) is perfectly in keeping with the movie's indecision about whether to join true believers or mock them.
The movie actually starts with a too-careful disclaimer, suggesting that it's not going to have much satirical bite. Hollywood loves to play to as many demographics as it can which means that satire is not their strong suit. I'm not sure what the political/religious climate was like in 1960 when the film premiered but it was a hit. The film can't seem to make up its mind (at all) as to whether or not these preachers are hypocritical con artists or benevolent spiritual leaders. The only gospel Elmer Gantry seems truly comfortable selling is the gospel of showmanship.
And that, dear reader, it sells well. Lancaster's sermons still play like gangbusters in 2010. They even feel timeless. It was impossible not to see today's politician/preachers in his antics. Sarah Palin's winking 'lamestream media' anti-intellectualism was instantly recognizable in one pointed private moment between Elmer and a reporter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy) which plays out in a public forum.
"I admit I'm not smart like some of them -- some of them smartalecky professors, wiseguy writers and agitators. I don't know the first thing about philosophy, psychology, ideology or any other ology. But I know this. With Christ you're saved. And without him you're lost.Lancaster's sizzle in the sermon scenes has the unfortunate effect of making Sister Sharon seem like a dud in the charisma department. It's hard to suspend disbelief that she is the bankable person on their joint ticket. Could that be why the arguably miscast Jean Simmons was denied an Oscar nomination despite the Academy's love for the film?
And how do I know there's a merciful god? Because I've seen the devil plenty o times.
The movie's finale is weirdly botched, opting for something like holy sentiment mixed with you-get-what-you-deserve moralizing while also trying to take one last dig at the salvation through donation con game. There are so many competing agendas and you cannot serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). B-
<-- Lancaster and Taylor with their Oscars in April 1961.
Since it's a muddled effort, is it sacrilegious to suggest that Elmer Gantry really deserves a remake? It's totally topical. Perhaps the novel needs a new set of filmmaker eyes on it. No matter, I suppose. We'll have to make do with a Paul Thomas Anderson double feature starring huckster preachers Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Untitled).
Have you seen Elmer Gantry?
I'd love to hear other perspectives on it.