Oscar Vault Monday – Elmer Gantry, 1960 (dir. Richard Brooks)
This is an interesting film. It’s a satire, for sure. But I can’t help but think its satirical tone was probably lost on many a person when it first came out (and anyone who’s watched it since). That or it made them uncomfortable because it’s satirical about religion, but not in a Monty Python kind of way. Regardless, I thought it was fantastic. I think Richard Brooks is one of the great underrated directors of the transitional period from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning three: Best Score (Comedy or Drama), Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Supporting Actress Shirley Jones (won), Best Actor Burt Lancaster (won), Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were The Alamo, Sons and Lovers, The Sundowners and winner The Apartment.
Richard Brooks’ most famous films are probably Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and In Cold Blood. He was nominated for eight Academy Awards, though his only win was for his adapted screenplay for Elmer Gantry. His other nominations included Best Screenplay for The Blackboard Jungle, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for The Professionals and Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for In Cold Blood. Somehow I still haven’t seen The Blackboard Jungle (even though it stars Glenn Ford; man’s man), but I love every single Brooks film I’ve seen. Definitely a director worth your time.
God I love Burt Lancaster. Not only was he a great actor, he seems like he was a genuinely good person. In this film Lancaster plays the titular skirt-chasing-hudsucker-turned-evangelical-preacher Elmer Gantry. This is probably Lancaster’s showiest role, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a showy character and Lancaster hits every note just right. Lancaster was also nominated for Best Actor for From Here To Eternity, Birdman of Alcatraz and Atlantic City. I must also recommend Come Back Little Sheba, Sweet Smell of Success, Seven Days In May, and, well, many, many others. Lancaster is always good regardless of the quality of the rest of the film. Trust me on this one.
Apparently the character of evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer was very different in the book. I haven’t read it, so I’ve no basis for comparison. I will say I thought Simmons was flawless in this film. Especially in her last scene. Utterly heartbreaking. Although Simmons was not nominated for her performance in this film, she was nominated for two Academy Awards in her career: Best Supporting Actress for Hamlet and Best Actress for The Happy Ending. Simmons is great in everything I’ve seen her in, but if I had to pick a favorite performance I’d go with her work in Spartacus (also released in 1960, Stanley Kubrick’s epic was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning four, but was somehow NOT nominated for Best Picture).
Shirley Jones is probably best known as the mom on the long-running 70s television show The Partridge Family, but ten years earlier she made waves with her performance as Gantry’s vengeful ex-girlfriend-turned-prostitute Lulu Baines. Jones steals every scene she’s in and, as much as I like Lancaster in this film, she’s probably the best thing in the whole film. Just pure dynamite. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, the only nomination she ever received from the Academy.
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Arthur Kennedy is his spitfire turn as journalist Jackson Bentley in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. In this film he also plays a journalist, one who can see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit. He’s also got way more morals than I think someone like him probably would have had. Kennedy gives probably the only subtle performance in the film and adds some much-needed balance to all the energy. Kennedy was nominated for five Academy Awards – all in the 1950s, though he never managed to win a single award. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor four times: Champion, Trial, Peyton Place and Some Came Running and Best Actor once: Bright Victory.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the film’s discussion of evolution (needless to say, the evangelicals were against it). Elmer Gantry is based in the mid-to-late-twenties, and 1925 was the year of the famous “Scopes monkey trial“, which was, oddly enough, featured in another 1960 film – Stanley Kramer’s Inherit The Wind. Kramer’s film was nominated for four Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any. I think watching Elmer Gantry followed by (or preceding) Inherit The Wind would make for a pretty interesting double feature. Maybe I’ll try it someday.