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USA 1960
Directed by
Richard Brooks
145 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Elmer Gantry

Burt Lancaster picked up the Best Actor Oscar for his physically ebullient portrayal of the title character, a good-natured but feckless travelling salesman with a gift of the gab who hooks up with the revivalist tent show of Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) in Prohibition-era Nebraska. Although recognizing Gantry for what he is she recognizes his gifts for winning converts to the Lord, eventually falling for his charms with disastrous results once Gantry’s relationship with a former beau, now a prostitute (Shirley Jones) is revealed.

Despite Lancaster’s Oscar (and one for Jones as Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay for Brooks along with a nomination for Best Picture), stylistically the film is dated on every level with Lancaster’s over-the-top performance only being the most exaggerated of a roster of cut-out characters, a sensationalist but at heart sanitized approach to its subject matter, superficial plotting and no sense of time and place. 

Although posing as drama, Elmer Gantry is played with the hyperbolic gusto of a musical of the period, albeit without any songs although Lancaster at times partakes of the gospel singing and Simmons' unconvincing casting unfortunately recalls her role as a Salvation Army missionary in 1955’s Guys And Dolls.

Despite the florid approach, the core theme of the function of religion for the common man and woman no doubt remains valid today (Steve Martin revisited the territory in Leap Of Faith in 1992) and that, and Lancaster’s uncharacteristically scene-chewing performance, is just about enough to make this watchable.




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