This movie is one of the finest performances by Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry.
Elmer is a travelling salesman. The opening lines of the Sinclair Lewis novel on which the movie is based are: "Elmer Gantry was drunk." He is a womanizing, hard drinking, manipulating scoundrel…but, underneath the brashness is a caring heart. He once was going to be a minister, but, he was kicked out of divinity school because of certain sexual exploits. His life as a travelling salesman is a hard and not very fruitful one. He sees a revival preacher, a Sister Sharon Falconer, played by Jean Simmons, and manipulates his way into her entourage.
The film was released in 1960 and at that time they ran a warning at the beginning of the film that alerts the audience to the controversial nature of the film and that children should not watch it.
Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel to expose and denounce the flamboyant, small-town evangelists spreading through America at the time he wrote the novel, which was years before the movie. The film runs 146 minutes.
Academy Awards were given to Lancaster for Best Actor, to Shirley Jones as Best Supporting Actress, and the film also won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.. It was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to The Apartment. Lancaster was competing that year against Jack Lemmon for The Apartment, Laurence Olivier for The Entertainer, and Spencer Tracy for Inherit the Wind---stiff competition to say the least!
The film was written and directed by Richard Brooks. Other Brooks films (he made films from 1953 to 1985) include: Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Bite the Bullet, In Cold Blood, The Professionals, Lord Jim, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Brothers Karamazov, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Blackboard Jungle.
Lancaster's career ran for six decades starting in 1948 and lasting into the 90s. His finest films, besides Elmer Gantry, include The Birdman of Alcatraz (nomination for Best Actor, lost to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird), and The Rainmaker, From Here to Eternity (nomination for Best Actor, lost to William Holden for Stalag 17).
It is interesting to compare this film with the more recent one starring Robert Duval entitled The Apostle. It is also interesting to compare both of these films with the real life careers of Billy Graham and the three Jimmies (Jim Jones, Jim Swaggert, and Jim Baker).Back to the syllabus