Elmer Gantry Preaches to the Choir at the Aero
Saturday night I ventured to the Aero Theater to take in a special 50th Anniversary showing of one of 1960’s big ones, Elmer Gantry. This Oscar-winning success tackles some big, controversial themes (Religion for Profit, Darwinism vs. Christianity, Prostitution, etc.) and writer/director Richard Brooks guides his exceptional cast through this ambitious effort in admirable fashion. Although Gantry may not have gained the staying power or reputation of some of the year’s other top films (Psycho, The Apartment), it remains a fine example of an absorbing drama.
As Gantry, Burt Lancaster delivers one of the most hypnotically watchable performances ever. It’s easy to see this constantly grinning, vibrant fast talker giving a Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham a run for his money, as Lancaster sells himself as Gantry in magnificent, magnetic fashion. You believe this inexperienced but charismatic salesman with a gift for gab (he gets a lot of mileage out of his catchphrase, “Love is the morning and the evening star”) could easily hit the ground running with his first sermon after he’s quickly ingratiated himself into the inner circle of Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a popular traveling evangelist. Lancaster is an incredible presence as he bellows and bandies his way through the movie, and his robust talents are given full range in one of those rare perfect fusions of actor and role (Lancaster once commented, “Elmer wasn’t acting- Elmer was me”).
The ever-dependable Arthur Kennedy lends wry credibility to his role as Jim Lefferts, a reporter following Gantry’s upward trajectory. Edward Andrews is also impressive with his spot-on work as the sweaty, hypocritical George Babbitt, the businessman who becomes a somewhat unwilling participant in Gantry’s shenanigans. As Lulu Bains, the blast-from-the-past hooker who complicates Gantry’s good fortune considerably in possibly the film’s most entertaining, involving storyline, Shirley Jones is a little too obviously acting up a storm to counter her established good girl image; however, her “out there,” all-out performance is something to see, with Jones giving the juicy role all she’s got. She invests some perverse, debauched elements into her racy characterization, none more so than when she delivers the film’s most infamous line, “He rammed the fear of God into me. . .” Her florid, colorful work is impossible to ignore and fun to watch; in addition, stylistically she matches up very well with her formidable leading man’s vibrant presence.
Brooks does an excellent job adapting key storylines from the Lewis novel into his engrossing, Oscar-winning screenplay. Although the film goes on for almost 2 ½ hours, Brooks keeps things moving along in exciting fashion, including rousing scenes of revival meetings with Gantry and Falconer stirring up the crowds and converting the masses, an engrossing sequence wherein Lulu attempts to alternately frame and seduce her former lover and, especially, an impressively staged, fiery climax to the film.
After the film, a resplendent-looking Shirley Jones took the stage for an entertaining discussion. The star detailed her involvement in the film and her career in general, in the down-to-earth, amiable manner familiar to anyone who’s seen Jones interviewed over the years (Jones first comment upon arriving onstage: “That was a LONG movie!”). At the outset, Jones stated at the time she won the role of Lulu Bains, a performer could be pegged into one category- a singer, a dancer, a comedian or an actor. After attaining success as the lovely musical star of Oklahoma, Carousel and April Love, Jones sought opportunities to prove herself as an actress. Television provided the medium for Jones to illustrate her skill as a dramatic performer via her against-type casting in a 1956 Playhouse 90 presentation, The Big Slide. Lancaster saw the telecast and later contacted Jones to ask her if she’d read Gantry, as he felt she was a good bet to play Lulu. After perusing the novel, Jones reaction to the uninhibited character of Lulu Bains was “Oh, my.” Jones then met with Brooks, and she explained the director only allowed his actors to read their roles, not the entire script. After reading Lulu’s scenes, Jones told Brooks, “I’ll do it for nothing.” Jones said if she somehow managed to get the rich, demanding role, she knew that “this would be an incredible thing for me,” as she felt the role would offer her the chance to clearly establish herself as an actress outside of the peaches-and-cream onscreen ingénues she’d previously cornered the market on. She stated she was given “no test, no reading, nothing” before Lancaster called her to inform her she’d won the part.
Jones mentioned, “I don’t show up until the film’s well over an hour over,” but Lancaster “would have me come to the set every day and watch the shooting” in order for Jones to feel integrated into the rest of the cast. However, Jones explained “I filmed my most difficult scene (Lulu’s introductory scene in the whorehouse) first” and Brooks, who wanted Piper Laurie for the role, somberly offered Jones no feedback or encouragement during her initial day of shooting. Jones went home distraught, certain that she would be fired from the film. Jones explained, “I didn’t work the next day, and Brooks had a chance to watch my footage.” Afterwards he called Jones, telling her he didn’t originally want her, but after viewing her first day’s work he felt, “Not only are you going to be wonderful in this part, you’re going to win an Academy Award.”
Regarding her Oscar victory, Jones stated she felt she had no chance to win the award, stating, “I was truly the dark horse.” Jones explained she believed Janet Leigh was the frontrunner for the Academy Award after winning some major precursor awards for Psycho, including the Golden Globe (Jones said she hadn’t won any pre-Oscar awards for Gantry; however, Jones was really about even with Leigh entering the Oscar derby, having obtained the prestigious National Board of Review Supporting Actress award prior to the Academy Awards). On her way to the ceremony, husband Jack Cassidy implored Jones to write something down just in case her named was called. Presenter Hugh Griffith did call Jones to the podium, whereupon she stated to the audience that winning the Oscar was “the greatest moment of my career.” Jones received criticism from both Cassidy and current husband Marty Ingels for her remark: Ingels has asked, “Why did you say ‘career’ instead of the greatest moment of your life?” Jones explained she places her roles as wife, mother and grandmother of ten above anything she achieved in her career, thereby drawing a clear line between her work and her personal life.
Jones discussed her post-Gantry career, then provided the audience with a terrific story concerning her start as a performer. Jones stated she was going to be a vet, and was taking a vacation in New York City prior to heading to college. A pianist friend Jones had worked with growing up was working in the city, and encouraged Jones to attend an open audition to find chorus members for the three Rogers and Hammenstein shows then running on Broadway. After, “I stood in line, just like all the other singers,” Jones said she finally was given an opportunity to sing for a casting director. When asked what her prior experience was, Jones replied, “Nothing.” Then she sang. Upon finishing her audition, the director called Richard Rogers in. Rogers listened to Jones and said, “Wait 20 minutes, I’m going to have Oscar Hammerstein come and hear you.” At this point, the pianist had a plane to catch, and Jones was informed by Rogers, “We’ll work something out.” With Hammerstein now in tow, the City Center Symphony was utilized to provide Jones with some musical accompaniment. When asked if she knew the score of Oklahoma, the inexperienced Jones informed the audience she replied, “I think I know the music, but I don’t know the words. And, of course, I’m talking to the lyrist.” Nevertheless, things obviously worked out well for the youngster after her fortuitous meeting with this dynamic duo.
When the Q&A session was opened to the audience, I queried Jones about her working relationship with Lancaster, asking the star is she sensed a special chemistry or vibe while filming their scenes together. Jones responded, “Yes, I did feel chemistry. Burt was a great teacher who knew his business, he knew his craft- he helped me a lot.” Jones went on to state that in her stage show she features eight minutes of film clips of her kissing her leading men. “Whenever I’m asked who the best kisser was, I always say ‘Burt Lancaster!’” Husband Marty Ingels raised his hand to ask the next question: “Is it fair to say you never slept with Burt Lancaster?” As the audience laughed, Jones looked back at me and said, “Maybe that’s the question you were really asking” (I’d intended my question to refer to their similar performing styles, and I shook my head no- guess I’ll have to be clearer next time).
The final question posed to Jones involved Frank Sinatra’s original casting in Carousel. Jones stated she was excited by the chance to work with the legendary performer: “It was the dream of a lifetime for me.” Sinatra told her he was thrilled with the prospect of playing Billy Bigelow, who Jones viewed as “the greatest male role in a musical.” However, the film was originally to be shot in both regular 35 mm and in the Cinemascope 55 process, and when Sinatra arrived on the set for his first day of shooting and saw two cameras, he asked director Henry King about the setup. When King explained the situation, Sinatra asked, “Does this mean I might have to shoot the same scene more than once?” When King replied in the affirmative, Sinatra stated, “I signed to do one movie, not two,” then got in his car and departed the set for good. With Sinatra literally out of the picture, a distressed King turned to his female star and asked, “Shirley, where’s Gordon MacRae?” Jones contacted her Oklahoma costar in Las Vegas, where MacRae was appearing with his wife, Shelia. When she asked him if he was interested in the role, MacRae replied, “Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.”
The evening also served as a fitting tribute for star Jean Simmons, who passed away at age eighty the night before the Gantry screening, as the film provides the talented Simmons with one of the finest roles of her career. Simmons was a sure bet for stardom after a sensational start in Britain with attention-getting roles in Great Expectations, Black Narcissus and, especially, as an Ophelia for the ages in Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet. She ventured to Hollywood for an intriguing career as one of the more reliable talents found in 1950’s and 1960’s films, after being placed under contact with Howard Hughes. Interestingly, although Simmons was prominently featured in some of the era’s biggest films (The Robe, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, Gantry and Spartacus among them), she never gained the “top star” status of some of her contemporaries, such as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor. However, Simmons did receive a substantial degree of critical recognition during her career, gaining two Oscar nominations, as well as several Golden Globe nods, a Globe for Guys and Dolls, and a late-career Emmy for The Thorn Birds.
Simmons’ work endures as well as any female star of this period- although she could play a beautiful, seductive heroine with ease (check out her work opposite Robert Mitchum in her best effort under her Hughes contact, Angel Face, or her sexy swim in Spartacus) Simmons built her solid reputation based on the fact she was one of the most intelligent actresses to ever grace the screen. Gantry plays to her strengths in this area. Simmons adroitly conveys Sister Sharon’s ambitions and growing attraction to Gantry, while also making it clear to the audience Sharon is skeptical of Gantry’s motives as he becomes involved in her life and career. Even in the dated seduction scene, which elicited groans from the audience after Elmer chauvinistically informs Sharon, “Every woman is fighting every other woman for every man,” Simmons thoughtful interpretation makes the viewer identify with Sharon’s apprehensive submission to her suitor. In one of Simmons’ finest moments, a hesitant Sharon appears at a loss when Lefferts asks her why she believes she should hold her privileged position as a prophet over someone else. Simmons’ pensive reaction to the penetrating inquiry allows the viewer to gain insight into Sharon’s conflicted mindset concerning her role as an evangelist. With her focused, complex performance Simmons creates a vivid, memorable portrait equal to Lancaster’s, and her subdued, compelling portrayal serves as a perfect counterpoint to his bombastic playing. Jones remembered Simmons fondly, stating, “she was a total professional, but also someone who had a great sense of humor,” and went on to state, “How she didn’t get a nomination (for Gantry) I’ll never know” (fortunately, Simmons was recognized for her later re-teaming with Brooks and Jones, 1969’s The Happy Ending).
Simmons was never afraid to takes risks as a performer, as she certainly did when tackling the blockbuster musical Guys and Dolls opposite Marlon Brando. Simmons heretofore untried musical comedy abilities proved up to the role, and she surprised audiences by coming through with a thoroughly engaging performance. Simmons had an uncanny ability to give herself over to any role she attempted, in the process making each performance distinct and seemingly effortless. It’s difficult to think of a Simmons performance that isn’t proficient, professional, and thoroughly satisfying (personally, I’ve been anxious to see her work in Home Before Dark for years, but the film is hard to find). Simmons was a class act both onscreen and off, but she maintained a very low profile during the last couple of decades, and I have to admit that even though I’m a big fan of her work and once sent a fan letter/autograph request to her in the 1980’s (which she graciously answered), due to her low public profile I thought Simmons had passed away years ago. Simmons’ created a fine roster of skillful, versatile performances during her career, and her work deserves to be viewed and reviewed by anyone interested in watching superior acting by a true leading lady of the silver screen.
Simmons at ease on the Spartacus set, with costars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis: