Elmer Gantry [1960]

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones
Genre: Drama
Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 146 minutes

Brothers and sisters, can we get a witness for this woeful tale of saints and sinners? Burt Lancaster earned his only Oscar as the wide-smiling, glad-handing, soul-saving charlatan Elmer Gantry, a salesman who turns his gift for preaching into a career at the pulpit. Climbing on board the barnstorming evangelical tour of revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a true believer in the Aimee Semple McPherson mold, Gantry declaims, invokes, and sermonizes his way to the top until a former flame-turned-prostitute (Shirley Jones in an Oscar-winning performance) threatens to reveal his dark past as a womanizer and con man. Lancaster harnesses all his physical vigor and natural charisma for this role, literally throwing himself into his preaching with the vigor of an acrobat and the sing-song delivery of a gospel singer--he even brays like a hound to show the Holy Spirit within him. Gantry is a showman, pure and simple, and while he doesn't fool true-believer Sister Sharon, he gives her a few object lessons in playing the crowd. Director Richard Brooks, who also took home an Oscar for his screenplay (adapted from the Sinclair Lewis novel), creates a rousing drama both on and off the pulpit, and provides fine roles for an excellent supporting cast, including Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, John McIntire, and singer Patti Page. --Sean Axmaker

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