He plays the title character, a charismatic but aimless hustler who becomes involved in a 1920’s American religious movement. He loves the energy of dynamic religion, but equates it to selling a product, like hawking ice cream.
Lancaster is at his scenery-chewing best here, with untamed hair and outsized personality. We want to be enticed by his oily charm, and we can’t wait to see what he does Next.
Therefore, to be any other cast member in this film would be difficult, although Shirley Jones did win an Oscar for her portrayal of a wayward young woman whose life was ruined by Lancaster. Arthur Kennedy is superb as a cynical journalist who sees through Lancaster’s bluster, and likes him anyway.
The toughest job in this film belongs to Jean Simmons. Simmons is the female lead – a woman evangelist spearheading a large revival. Her character is a pious woman whose only earthly indulgence seems to be her fashionable wardrobe.
This single-minded woman has a Job To Do, and she won’t easily be consumed by Lancaster’s scene-stealing charisma.
But, like everyone else, she eventually succumbs to Lancaster’s odd charms.
Simmons’s character, Sister Sharon, has an expensive vocation. She saves souls, feeds the hungry, and heals the sick, but these things cost money. Every time she Sets Up Shop in a new town, she’s starting From Scratch.
Sister Sharon is All Business off-stage, but amusing and theatrical when she’s preaching. She knows how to handle an audience.
In one scene, Simmons’s character confronts a hostile crowd. She falls to her knees and prays; a small, fragile figure who refuses to be bullied. The naysayers love her for it.
Yet, she’s not invincible. After an intense preaching session, she collapses from exhaustion. Simmons’s Sister Sharon is always On for personal appearances, but is often drained afterwards.
In another scene, she tries to heal a man of deafness. She places her hands on his ears, and says, “Heal. Heal!” She repeats herself, desperate for him to hear, desperate for faith to be rewarded. Simmons makes us feel her anxiety, her determination to prove the sick can be healed.
Too bad she’s an imposter.
In a moment of weakness, Simmons admits she’s actually Katy Jones from Shantytown and that Sister Sharon Falconer is her creation. “I am Sharon Falconer now,” she says. “I made her. I put her together piece by piece until I’ve got a right to be her. I am her.”
She’s a phoney – and a genuine believer.
Elmer Gantry is based on the 1927 novel by American author Sinclair Lewis. As you might imagine, a novel about religion was controversial and Hollywood studios were reluctant to finance a film adaptation.
The film skewers hypocrites, but it offers a sympathetic portrayal of Simmons’s character.
You can’t help but compare Sister Sharon to an actual female evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), who held revivals across the United States. By 1919-1922 she had became hugely popular; 200,000 people attended her revival in Oakland, and there were 300,000 in San Diego.¹
McPherson settled in Los Angeles in 1923 where she built the Angelus Temple. “In a city full of movie stars, Aimee Semple McPherson was poised to become the biggest celebrity of all,”² writes historian Gary Krist.
As far as we can tell, Simmons captures McPherson’s essence, a female evangelist in an era when such a thing was rare, a resolute woman who wrote a new religious playbook.
Elmer Gantry, the film, was nominated for five Oscars and won three. Simmons was not nominated for an Oscar, but she was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award.
The film is a study in Acting, especially when it comes to a female lead who refuses to be swallowed by Burt Lancaster’s shadow.
This post is part of the 90 YEARS OF JEAN SIMMONS BLOGATHON hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.
Elmer Gantry: starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy. Written & directed by Richard Brooks. United Artists, 1960, Colour, 146 mins.
Krist, Gary. (2018) The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
¹Ibid., page 194.
²Ibid., page 155.