Features and Columns · Movies

Old Ass Oscar: Elmer Gantry

By  · Published on March 7th, 2010

Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents an Oscar Nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Elmer Gantry (1960)

There’s a legacy of literature secretly weaving itself into the Academy Awards. There’s also a few un-adaptable books that have found their way all the way to the nominee pool. For a long time since its publication in 1927, Sinclair Lewis’s novel had been eyed for the big screen, but few had the stones to even attempt it. Enter Richard Brooks, the writer/director who was passed from studio to studio until finally getting someone to sign the dotted line.

The reason for the hesitation was simply because the source material was so controversial. Coming out of the Golden Age of the 1950s, the fact that this film got made is either a testament to the changing tide in America or one of its causes.

The story follows the titular character, played by an on-fire Burt Lancaster, as he fast talks his way into preaching at revivals and into the silk stockings of Sister Falconer (Jean Simmons). He’s brash, insulting, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. But he has a past that will come back to haunt him as he gains celebrity.

The timing of this movie is also interesting because it crosses that threshold where movies and how they were made really did begin to change. This is as modern a film as you’ll see. For one, it’s fast-paced and witty, giving something to the ADD generation two full decades before that generation hopped out of their mothers’ wombs. It’s shot with energy, stopping briefly to linger on conversations only to swoop low and around the revival tent so you can almost feel the sweat pouring out of the lens.

Only two years ago, There Will Be Blood stabbed its way into our cultural consciousness. In a lot of ways, it is a fitting companion to Gantry. Both focus on a single character, a sociopath who is hungry for power. Both also feature unimaginably strong acting performances in those roles. Lancaster is so good that you’ll want to convert, you just won’t know exactly what to. Both, of course, are also based on controversial novels by people named Sinclair that follow universal themes of greed.

What Gantry has that Blood doesn’t is a formidable female lead (unless you count Paul Dano). Jean Simmons plays an honest woman trying to spread the Word of God who is taken in completely by this brown-eyed, handsome devil and proceeds to lose the walls that keep her from being human. Of course, watching that decent into humanity, especially Gantry’s particular brand of humanity, is one of the most fascinating things about the movie.

It all comes wrapped in the uneasy feeling that something tragic will happen eventually – the house of cards that the sweaty snake-oil salesman is building is just waiting for the wind to come.

And it does in the form of Lulu – a prostitute played by Shirley Jones (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). In a Clinton-esque scandal,Gantry has to hold everything together while we all know it’ll be crashing down.

The movie is an out and out masterpiece by Brooks – the man who gave us Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals, Lord Jim and others. However, it lost out on being Best Picture when The Apartment took the prize.

Even without the win, it is an engaging tale and a God’s eye view of a man who acts both as a testament to the failings of humanity and to the disgusting nature that religion can build around itself. It’s not a complete condemnation of organized religion – the proof being in Sister Falconer with her earnest desire to bring the Good Word to the people that need it most. In the end, the movie doesn’t have a particular message, but it leads the audience to the water – it’ll be up to you to decide whether to be baptized or to drown in it.

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