Elmer Gantry is a fast talking, hard drinking traveling salesman who always has a risqué story and a hip flask to entertain cronies and customers alike. He is immediately taken with Sister Sharon Falconer, a lay preacher whose hellfire and damnation revivalism has attracted quite a following. Gantry uses his own quick wit and knowledge of the bible to become an indispensable part of Sister Sharon's roadshow but soon finds that his past catches up with him in the form of Lulu Bains, now a prostitute. While Gantry seeks and eventually gets forgiveness from Sharon, tragedy strikes when she finally manages to get out of her revivalist tent and opens a permanent church. Written by
Scrolled before the opening credits: "We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination- that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity! We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, but- Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people! However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!" See more »
All you need to know about the character of Elmer Gantry is neatly summed up in the first 10 minutes of the film. The film opens as we see Gantry holding court around a table in a bar, telling jokes and anecdotes of sexual conquests one minute, and then the next minute is helping out two wayward parishioners by passing the hat around the bar and preaching in earnest the word of God. Lancaster plays out the duality in the role of Gantry as everyman/ preacher brilliantly throughout the film. We're witness to his meteoric rise within the ranks of the religious road show, we see his stumbles within those ranks and his eventual fall from popularity to an even more impossible grace under fire (literally), but most importantly we see the ability of his character to serve both his rise and fall in ways truly unexpected.
Gantry finds that there are many who will listen to him wax eloquent on the bible. But when Gantry sees Sister Sharon Falconer (as played by Jean Simmons) he forgets about getting closer to the lord and decides to ingratiate himself into her 'inner circle'. Gantry can see that the 'old time religion show' is a soul saver on Sunday, but quite a moneymaker on Monday. There are 'two very different' Gantry's, the one who has a lifetime of sexual anecdotes and the other who's true love is for the bible. What we are not in store for is the third Gantry; the one in love with Elmer Gantry and his own voice. In any case, Gantry sees a golden opportunity to satisfy all three Gantry's and he goes for it. Through his ability to con and sweet talk his way to the top, Gantry makes all of the right friends and maneuvers himself to a spot underneath Sister Sharon Falconer.
Gantry's fall comes in the form of Lulu Baines (as played by Shirley Jones), a prostitute with a past history with Gantry. As Gantry's popularity on the 'road show' circuit starts to hit its zenith, Baines appears into Gantry's life once again as she sets up Gantry for blackmail. How Gantry deals with Baines and the loss of trust from Sister Sharon is one of the best moments from the film. And although her time on screen doesn't come close to matching that of both Lancaster and Simmons, it is the performance of Jones in one scene that practically steals the show. Jones' speech to the ladies in the brothel about Gantry "Ramming the fear of God so fast" into her was exhilaratingly fun and mildly erotic. I would think it was largely this scene that got her noticed by the Academy in 1960.
However great Lancaster is as Gantry (Oscar winning performance) and spectacular Jones is as Baines (another Oscar winner), let us not forget how easy it would have been for this movie to have THREE Oscar WINNERS!!! Yes, Jean Simmons was robbed by the Academy that year. I think there are at least three reasons as to why Jean Simmons was not given the Oscar that year. One is the brutally lame ending to the movie. Sister Sharon is left to walk about the fiery inferno of her newly built church, while everyone around her is knocking her to the ground trying to escape. Sister Sharon is oblivious to human stampedes and is more concerned in urging everyone to remain calm. A performance that must not have been lost on John Landis when he made Kevin Bacon reprise it in 'Animal House' some 18 years later (sans the fire). It was a shame to see her babbling like an idiot while certain death surrounded her. That's one reason, but the other two reasons are probably more to the truth. You see, Jean Simmons wasn't the only actress who can claim to have been robbed on Oscar night, so could Shirley Maclaine. The Oscar could have gone to either one, but if it had gone to Jean Simmons, The Academy would've had a hard time giving any award to the 'The Apartment' or its director Billy Wilder. How could 'Elmer Gantry' win three of the four main awards yet not walk away with the Best Picture? It's also been said the Academy felt bad for Elizabeth Taylor as she was not only recovering from the recent death of her husband, Michael Todd, but also that she had just needed an emergency tracheotomy only weeks before the awards. However, one point should be clear, Elizabeth Taylor never should have won the Oscar over the performances that year from Simmons or Maclaine.
Another performer from the movie who gives a great performance is Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts. Lefferts is the skeptical newsman who follows the 'road show' waiting to see a miracle or perhaps to see many a false prophet fall. One scene that stands out is the scene where Lefferts is dictating an article on the exploits of Lancaster and Simmons' religious road show. While he is dictating he is also absent-mindedly sharpening a pencil. As Lefferts comments become to take on more of a cynical tone, the pencil in his hand also becomes sharper. Once Lefferts is through with his thought, the pencil has been sharpened to a fine point and his thoughts are ready for print. He writes, "Is it a church, is it a religion or is it a circus sideshow complete with freaks, magic and rabble rousing?
This is a fine film with a slightly disappointing ending. I can't accept that the errant fling of a cigarette can flash through the heavens like a message from God, but if ever a bolt of lightning was captured onto the silver screen, it was the bolt from Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry. 9/10.
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