24 August 2008 | Danusha_Goska
Wow! Complex, Fascinating, Relevant; A Must See
In "Elmer Gantry," Burt Lancaster gives one of the all-time great screen performances. Lancaster's performance is so rich, so real, that the viewer knows this man, knows what Gantry smells like (sweat and eau de cologne) and what he eats (big slabs of beef). I can't say I've ever seen anything quite like it. Gantry's entire repertoire is performed with encyclopedic thoroughness and accuracy. We see Gantry the narcissistic conman, Gantry the philanthropist, Gantry the flamboyant showman.
Just when we think we've seen it all, just when we think we can write Gantry off as a cross between a clown, a self-deceiver, and a blowhard, the movie reveals another nuance in Gantry's soul something we'd never seen before, and yet realize is totally believable, and, in fact, essential to understanding the man. Our views of the man change. We can't help but love him.
One such scene: almost 75 % of the way through the movie, in fact, after a shorter and shallower movie would have ended, Gantry says to another man, "Don't you know that that hurts?" in a voice we haven't heard him use before. Lancaster is breathtaking in this, the film's quietest line reading. Lancaster is so magnificent in this, his Oscar-winning role, that you have to wonder if he is not calling on much of his own character, as a charming, larger-than-life Hollywood star, to play the charming, larger-than-life star of tent revivals. IMDb trivia notes claim that Lancaster received a letter from a childhood friend saying that Lancaster's performance as Elmer Gantry reminded him of the Lancaster he remembered from real life.
The rest of the cast is also superb. Jean Simmons is domineering, spiritual, spooky, and lustful, by turns. Shirley Jones is heartbreaking as a doomed woman. Arthur Kennedy is perfect as a skeptical journalist. Dean Jagger perfectly times and pitches his paternal air, his outrage, and his surprised forgiveness. Patti Page is poignant as Sister Rachel. Edward Andrews is the embodiment of a sanctimonious, ambitious, brothel owner.
This film addressing religious corruption, lynch mob mentality, and illicit sex was made under strict rules of censorship. There are no four letter words, no naked breasts, no bleeding wounds. And yet this film raised goose bumps in ways that more explicit movies only wish they could. A crowd brays for blood; a man pulls a horse whip out of a paper bag and cracks it. Refuse is thrown at a man, and what looks very like maggots. A police officer arresting a prostitute says "You wouldn't believe what I caught this one doing." A virgin is taken under a building by a man who has practically hypnotized her. Wow! "Elmer Gantry" is critical of Christian revival meetings that were popular in the rural south and Midwest in the early decades of the twentieth century. Its indirect targets were understood to be the historical figures, Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday. Some Christians might avoid the movie for this reason. That would be a mistake. The movie is ultimately very charitable to all of its characters, even Babbit, the brothel owner. Like Gantry himself, the film sees humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, understands, and forgives. This is no black/white, two-dimensional screed. It's a complex exploration of complex behaviors, longings, needs, desires, ambitions. A woman can be a virgin dedicated to God and also a lover who empties sand out of her high-heeled shoe after a night of illicit passion on a beach. A villain who contributed to the ruination of a young woman's life can redeem himself through application of biblical concepts of humility and forgiveness.
Too, the flimflamming "Elmer Gantry" skewers is not limited to churches. There is a charming narcissist of uncertain background on the world stage today who, like Gantry, attracts chanting crowds, causes women to faint and men to believe in a national renaissance. This particular charismatic public speaker is not a religious leader, but a candidate for the presidency. The speaker who wows crowds, the crowds who yearn to surrender themselves to a putative messiah, are forever with us. That being the case, "Elmer Gantry" is a film that will never lose its relevance.