Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Save Me Elmer Gantry, Save Me!

Fifty years ago today, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) started preaching to moviegoers. He started howling "Repent! Repent!" and multiple beautiful women started moaning "Save me! Save me!" to paraphrase a line from the satiric 1960 Best Picture nominee.

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.
  1. 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."
  2. 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."
So which side of the argument do you fall on with this sweaty, loud, extremely physical actor? I'd like to know but, for myself, I'm agnostic. I can't choose a side. I fall in and out of love with Lancaster but I like him best when he's dialing it back a little to assess how well Elmer is performing his (usually successful) seductions OR when he can't control his impulses at all and just lets Elmer carry on like a mad men. It's the inbetween stuff that's hard for me to take. It's in those moments when he's merely laughing too loud, smiling too big, or talking too much that he's a crude vulgar show off to me ... unless he's so outrageous that he's amusing. It's then that I think I like him.

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.

And how do I know there's a merciful god? Because I've seen the devil plenty o times.
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?

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.


Jude said...

I saw this one last year I think it was. Shirley Jones gives one of my favorite hooker performances. Too bad she never really showed that range again.

The church burning scene is pretty awesome, but overall the film is only average. I like that Burt Lancaster decided to push more on this movie. If he played this like he played "From Here to Eternity" it wouldn't have been as fun. While he's annoying sometimes, I'm glad Burt went all out.

Andrew K. said...

I don't like Burt Lancaster. At all. I know it sounds petty, but there it is. The first thing I saw him in was The Rainmaker - sadly my darling Kate's worst nominated performance. He was not an asset (and the stories I read about him: not pretty). Loved everybody espeicaly Deborah and Monty in From Here to Eternity He isn't bad in Elmer Gantry ...but it's just so obvious, though I love what the movie's aiming for. I think a few hate Jones here...but I like her. Her halfway mark actually reminds me of Cruz in Vicky Cristina shows up and steals the show from the somewhat affable but devilish leading man and the sweet but unfortunately bland leading lady (though Cristina > Sharon).

I think at the end of the day, I'm just pissed that Reynolds has the Oscar that so many of his contemporaries (*cough* Clift, Kennedy, Rainnns) didn't.

(Nathaniel, I love it when you talk about classics. Nick makes it sound so smart and you make it sound so fun that together I can't resist.)

sorry about the long comment, yikes


please. i love long comments. and kind ones too. You win :)

the reason i started this anniversary series is that i want to write more about classics but if there's not a "reason" per se it can be hard to motivate oneself. i'd never seen this so totally worth seeing even though i had issues with it.

Jude -- me too (about Burt). I haven't seen many Jones performances so I didn't have a lot to judge it on but I liked her in. That first scene is pretty lively/magical... but obviously she won with the magic combo of against/type and film stealing.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen all of "Elmer Gantry," but I know I'm gonna love it. As a repressed gay Catholic, I'm attracted to the kinds of characters that "Elmer Gantry" the movie present. They have good intentions, but they can't stop themselves. It's a flaw that might turn off other audiences, but it's my flaw.

Also a reminder hat Shirley Jones won against Janet Leigh for "Psycho" that year. And you know what? I ain't mad.


okinawa -- i try not to think too much about who beat who when i watch the older ones because, for example, with PSYCHO... it's so obviously the best movie of 1960 (sorry Apartment and everything else) but it wasnt nominated for Best Picture and you know... it's just not their thing. A Leigh win would've been so far outside their imagination (though it's cool she got nominated because she's terrific in it) even though they did surprise in a way giving that very unstuffy indelicate horror flick 4 nominations.

Anonymous said...

Curse my hands for typing that! But yes, any other actress would kill for her filmography.

Anonymous said...

Curse my hands for typing that! But yes, any other actress would kill for Janet Leigh's filmography.

Mark said...

I think Burt suffered from an inability to overcome his good looks and charisma, which made him perfect for Elmer Gantry. I'm not certain that he deserved the Academy Award in that particular year (I thought Laurence Olivier gave the performance of his life that year), but when you consider the entire body of work, particularly "The Sweet Smell of Success," or even a small film like "Come Back, Little Sheba," it's difficult to imagine Burt *without* an Oscar. Elemr Gantry is a film I saw as a child, and the early scene where Burt wanders into the church in the middle a powerful hymn has stayed with me all of my life. Great stuff, nice write-up.

danielson said...

I like Elmer Gantry OK but I think the Oscar's got that one wrong. I think Lancaster deserved it more for Birdman Of Alcatraz.
And Nathaniel, never think there isn't enough to write about when it comes to film.
I also like to discus classics. I think I have a softer spot for them than my era of movies.
I just wrote about The Best Years Of Our Lives. That film is way ahead it's time when one is coming home from war is concerned.
Keep up writing about the classics, I really think it was the best time in Hollywood. Everybody acted like their life depended on it or like it was their last role. Probably 60% of actors these days don't have that " I'm really trying to make you believe this performance " way about them like they did then.

Trevor said...

Oooh I've seen this! I think I liked it a bit more than you did, and sadly I can only talk about it in Oscars terms. I was kind of saddened that Jean Simmons didn't get nominated for this. I thought she was great and was cast well. Her chemistry with Burt Lancaster had this weird "this shouldn't be working but it is" vibe that I ended up liking.

Burt Lancaster was a pure spectacle here, and when there are complaints about how the Oscars love their grandstanding performances, this needs to be one of the main that thay cite (Broderick Crawford's a forefather, and Sean Penn a present-day disciple). At first I thought Elmer's speechifying was pure hambone and heavy-handed, but the more his layers were peeled off and his love for Sister Sharon was revealed, I bought into Burt's performance more.

I wouldn't have had Shirley Jones anywhere near that Oscar though. It had this lame "look at me playing BAD!" quality to it that the film never really overcame. The brothel scenes were so overt, and the fight scene wasn't good for her at all. I know voters love their against-type performances and their hookers with a heart o' gold, but no, no, no to all of that. That should have been Janet Leigh's Oscar for one of the all-time iconic screen performances.

The religious aspects of the film were done in a way that would probably have the religious nuts out there salivating today. I don't think I'd want this re-made though. It's so much of a film to deal with again, but new eyes could bring some new elements to the table and some restaint in places where the original needed it. I am glad I saw the film though. It sounds like I hated it when I didn't. It was just . . . excessive with some bright spots here and there, like Jean Simmons and the chemistry between her and Burt Lancaster.

Mirko S. said...

I really like Jean Simmons in this. I'm afraid she was overlooked because her perf is quite unshowy, instead of Lancaster and Jones that are very, very showy

cal roth said...

The whole in between, that "too much" thing is Gantry, not Lancaster. It's a fantastic performance in a career that had a lot of great moments.

Lancastar was fantastic even when dubbed in Italian for Visconti's Il Gattopardo. He knew he was going to be dubbed and made everything work just with his face, specially when he is in silence.

He was also beyond words in his late and compassionate work in Atlantic City and brilliant as a leading man in westerns (The Unforgiven, The Professionals, Vera Cruz).

But, in my opinion, he landed his best performance in Sweet Smell of Success, cast against-type as an uberbitchy newspaper columnist, full of shades of despair, evilness, sarcasm and sexual repression (I still don't know if he was a closeted gay or a guy in love with his sister).

In the same movie, Tony Curtis also delivers his best work. A masterpiece.

Ian said...

Burt Lancaster was something else. An atheist winning an Oscar for "Elmer Gantry"! The political activism, the womanizing, the missed roles, the actual performances, the controversies, the war protests, the feuds, and on and on . . . I liked him best in "From Here to Eternity," though my heart is always with Montgomery Clift for the Oscar that year. "Elmer Gantry" was always too bombastic for my tastes, but I like in general that he won the Oscar for something. I've seen all his nominated roles except "Atlantic City." I have to get on that one of these days. He delivered excellent work from what I've seen of him, and his personal life was a storied one. Very glad that this film was reviewed on here.

Volvagia said...

For me, two time winner. Supporting Actor, 1957 and Supporting Actor, 1983. Have you talked about Local Hero, Nat?


i have not. i have never seen it!

Dan Callahan said...

When I watched this again recently, I thought that Jones was ridiculously unconvincing as the hooker; poor directing and writing for her role, too. I like Burt when he quietly seethes, as in "Birdman of Alcatraz" or "The Killers," rather than the overkill awards-bait here. And I love Simmons in this; she's so subtle.

Remake: Clooney and Blanchett? With Anna Faris going Dramatic for the hooker, which wins her an Oscar, too?

Horror alert: for the big fire at the end, Richard Brooks burned up old nitrate prints of Columbia silent films to make his big fire more spectacular. After learning that fact, it was pretty hard to watch the ending.

Dan Callahan said...

ps: Great score by Andre Previn, too.

Volvagia said...

Hopefully there wasn't a full copy of Greed among the burnt pile. If there was, that would really suck.


DAN -- I suddenly want to give the movie an F instead. WTF? How do filmmakers have so little respect for film? it makes me so crazy.

the wrong people are running things!

Belle said...

So Shoshanna was right!

Oh, don't mind me. Loved "Elmer Gantry" BTW.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Elmer Gantry is at it's core a simple love triangle with the three vertices being Gantry, Sharon and God.

At first Gantry is selling God like a vacuum cleaner or typewriter and faking faith in order to woo Sister Sharon. Later, after his success, the jealous old testament God transpires to separate them and ultimately keep Sharon all to himself.

The question of whether Lancaster's performance works depends on what you believe his performace is for. I've always held that Gantry is sceptical and sells God like a vacuum cleaner purely for the money and later in order to impress Sharon, and that it's only after her death that he begins to really understand.

With this in mind I adore Lancaster's performance, there are so many shades in what he's doing the levels of performance in each scene depending on which other characters are present. Those moments you poiny out where he's laughing too loud or smiling too broad are the exact moment where I feel his performance cleverly walks the tightrope of the dilemma he faces.

Thank you so much for talking about this film Nat, it's one of my favourites and it's great too see different peoples point of view.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Elmer Gantry is one of my favorite movies, ever. And the book is one of my favorite novels, ever. And the two are vastly different. Sharon is only in about five chapters, and the where the movie ends is the exact halfway mark of the novel. Lulu Bains isn't even a prostitute, just an ex-flame that appears, with her husband, at Elmer's church in the last three chapters. Hollywood!

Still, the filmmakers get the spirit of the book, right down to that weird conflict between holy men and unholy conmen. Sinclair Lewis doesn't have the disclaimer, but there are preachers in his work that do not use the Bible for their own gain, that preach sincerely, that are not hypocritical and non-judgmental. The satire loses none of its bite, but Lewis does admit that there can be good people leading the church.

If any movie is ripe for a remake, it's Elmer Gantry. There are so many elements of the novel left unexplored, like Sharon's shrine to herself, where she speaks in tongues and considers herself the Goddess embodied. So weird! But so cool! It is my dream to remake Elmer Gantry, not because I'm not in complete make-out love with the original (I so am), but because I LOVE THIS STORY SO MUCH! Expect a Casting Coup on my blog for this soon. (Shameless plug!)

I second the Previn score.

Andrew R. said...

Shirley Jones is brilliant, but the film itself? Yegh.

katie said...


"Get behind me Satan!"

gabrieloak said...

Not a huge Gantry fan but I do like Burt Lancaster. I haven't watched Gantry since I was a kid and I was much too young to understand what was going on. I think Lancaster had a lot of sex appeal, something which a lot of our current screen actors lack. Kate Buford's biography on the actor is definitely worth checking out.