Monday, July 8, 2013

Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry; drama, USA, 1960; D: Richard Brooks, S: Burt Lancester, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones

Elmer Gantry is a tramp who likes alcohol and women, while travelling across the country. He works as a salesman of toasters and vacuum-cleaners, but decides to change his profession when he finds out that more people can be attracted to religious preachers, like revivalist Sharon Falconer. Even though she ignores him at first, he manages to sway her into joining her revivalist road show and electrify the audience thanks to his charisma and theatrical preaching. However, just as they succeed for the first time in a urban town, a reporter, Jim, writes a cynical column about them, upon which Elmer decides to ham it up even more to save his credibility, inciting the followers to shut down liquor stores and brothels. Still, one prostitute, Lulu, is his ex, and frames him, thereby destroying his reputation. Elmer loves Sharon, but she just wants to serve God. In her own church for the first time, Sharon heals a deaf man, but a fire erupts and she disappears in flames.

Excellent social study about religion, Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" is a thorough and multi-layered drama for which the leading actor Burt Lancester deservedly won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, since his eponymous anti-hero is even plausible during theatrical, over-the-top speeches which work as part of the main theme about how putting on a show is more important to the mass audience than inner spirituality. Rarely was religion showed so cynically in the 50s or 60s mainstream cinema, but Gantry is a much more complex character: even though it is obvious he switches to the 'religion business' just because he knows he can earn a lot more there than selling toasters, he is at the same time drawn to the best sides of it and even admires Sister Sharon, who truly believes the Christian revivalist road show is her calling. Nobody from the revival movement wants to have anything with him, but Gantry uses tricks and sly methods to overcome every obstacle, disarm any opposition and become part of the team anyway (after Morgan complains that his preachings are too crude, Gantry replies: "Crude? Vulgar? Sure, you know something, you are right, Bill. Let me put it this way: you're a 5 $ textbook, I'm a 2 cent tabloid newspaper. You're too good for the people. I am the people. Sure I'm common, like the people."). The dialogues are where the movie really shines, they are so crisp and well written that they almost work as author's ironic commentary, embodied in the reporter Jim's column: "Why does a revival attract thousands? To be saved from a lifetime of sin in 5 minutes? To be entertained, cuddled in quick, painless salvation?... I watched this unholy trinity, Falconer-Gantry-Morgan, save Nebraska. Has the sin of that state been washed away? Is there less envy, lust or adultery?" Even when the author shows a miracle (Sister Sharon healing a deaf man), it is immediately followed by an event (the fire in the church) that nullifies it. As if the message is that when religion became a job, it stopped being something natural and free for the people. But it also shows that each religion is only as good as the people practicing it. A classic.


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