In this year’s edition of its “31 Days of Oscar” marathon, Turner Classic Movies managed to save one of the best for last. I’m referring to 1960’s “Elmer Gantry,” which won Oscars for Burt Lancaster (Best Actor), Shirley Jones (Best Supporting Actress), and Richard Brooks (Best Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium). But anyone who savors good acting can tell you that little gold man should have been ripped out of Shirley Jones’s hands and bestowed upon Jean Simmons. Yet Ms. Simmons, who gives one of the best performances on film as the evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer, wasn’t even nominated (In the “Can You Believe This?” category, it was Greer Garson in “Sunrise at Campobello” who filled the slot, and Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy won the Best Actress Oscar for that snoozefest, “Butterfield 8”).
Based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel, “Elmer Gantry” is an uncommonly smart movie, even if what it takes seriously is what Lewis made a career of satirizing. Set during the 1920’s, this story of a divinity student turned appliance salesman turned revivalist shows the flip side of the Jazz Age. We’re in Bible Belt America, culminating in a religious crusade in Lewis’s Zenith, his prototypical Midwestern city. It’s the old-time religion brought to life, with a dash of Aimee Semple MacPherson and peppered with booze and other vices, not to mention hypocrisy and corruption. Truly a tasty meal.
Burt Lancaster is energy personified as Elmer Gantry. As expected, he’s wonderful in Gantry’s showier scenes, doing a baseball slide for Jesus and mocking evolution to the faithful with a chimpanzee at his side. Yes, a good part of his performance involves a lot of teeth and a salesman’s “just us boys” laugh, not to mention the fact that his pompadour should have received its own billing in the opening credits. But he’s tremendously moving in Elmer’s quieter moments, showing us the emptiness of his salesman’s life—the Christmas phone call home to his weeping mother, being stuck in a town where even a married woman pal can’t spare half an hour for him. He studiously works his way into Sharon’s inner circle, first by seducing music director Sister Rachel (Patti Page). By the time he finagles a private talk with Sister Sharon, feeding her a lot of malarkey based on information he gleaned from Rachel, we’re as charmed as she is.
But we’re even more charmed by Sister Sharon’s delight in him. She calls him “outrageous,” takes issue with his style and methods, but enjoys his relish in utilizing them as well as the success they bring to her crusade. Jean Simmons had played a woman of religious bent before (Sister Sarah in “Guys and Dolls,” where, among other talents, she memorably displayed a wicked throwing arm, pitching cocoanuts during that melee in Havana), but Sister Sharon is in quite a different league. She feels she’s been called by God, yet in discussion with the Zenith ministers’ committee, she can talk the dollars and cents of religion with the best of them. At times she surprises you with her reactions. When Gantry pounces for that first kiss, she’s shocked, but Simmons also shows us the character’s disappointment (“So that’s the only thing you really wanted?”). The spirituality is certainly there, but so is the earthiness of Katie Jones from Shantytown, the girl who became Sister Sharon. And from time to time Simmons make us feel Sharon’s uncertainty with the truth of her calling as well as her ability to cut through the hucksterism. Which makes the ultimate confirmation of both at the end of the film that more poignant.
Gantry’s counterbalance is Jim Lefferts, a skeptical Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who follows Sharon’s crusade from the sticks to Zenith. His articles raise the sort of questions about her, religion and revivalism that to this day still anger a lot of people. In one of the film’s best scenes, we see him in the press room, dictating a review of Sharon’s opening night in Zenith. A typist bangs out his words on an old upright, the room growing quieter by the moment as Lefferts gathers steam, painting what he’s just seen as simply another fad. “What is a revival?…Zenith is the heart of the Bible Belt. [But] this is an age that likes noise and whoopee. We’re a fertile land for corn, beans, squash, rumble seat sex and revivalism. Hallelujah, brother.” Being the screenwriter’s mouthpiece is always a tricky role, but Arthur Kennedy turns in a marvelous performance as Lefferts, showing us the doubter as well as the cynic. He’s a pleasure to watch.
Not so Shirley Jones as Lulu Baines, the dean’s daughter whose seduction behind the altar on Christmas Eve resulted in Gantry’s expulsion from divinity school. Richard Brooks, who directed the film in addition to writing the script, evidently thought it a great coup to cast the pretty, sweet Laurie of “Oklahoma!” as a prostitute showing off her rack. But shock value is short-lasting (though, as in this case, it usually results in an Oscar). What makes matters worse is that nearly every one of Jones’s line readings goes thunk. Lee Remick would have been perfect casting for the role, and better still, her talent would have kept the Lulu Baines story line from sinking into a soppy mess. A badly missed opportunity.
Aside from Shirley Jones, “Elmer Gantry” boasts one of the best supporting casts around. Dean Jagger, as Sharon’s manager, and especially Edward Andrews, as George F. Babbitt (“Kee-rect!”), are wonderful, as are John McIntire and Hugh Marlowe as two Zenith ministers who doubt the long-term worth of revivalism. As can be expected for a movie made in this era, there are some bumps in the road with respect to period hair and costuming, Sister Sharon’s Jackie Kennedy sunglasses being the loudest example.
“Elmer Gantry” is a film I never tire of seeing. Richard Brooks’s unusually thoughtful script and the vitality of both story and acting make this film a classic. Given what’s been going on in this country during the last 30 years, it’s more relevant now than when it was made. Enjoy.