Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Elmer Gantry (1960)

5 Nominations, 2 Wins

Win: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Burt Lancaster
Win: Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Shirley Jones
Win: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - Richard Brooks
Nomination: Best Picture - Bernard Smith
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Andre Previn

At the Academy Award ceremony held in 1954, the only year in which Burt Lancaster had received a nomination (for From Here to Eternity) prior to his win for Elmer Gantry, he was nominated against Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, and the victorious William Holden, quite the Murderer's Row of stars.  Seven years later, Lancaster faced an even more esteemed group of actors in Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy, Jack Lemmon, and Trevor Howard.  Yet it's hard to imagine that there was any real doubt that Lancaster would take home the Oscar for his performance as the slick salesman who uses his skills and charm on the evangelical revivalist circuit.  Playing the title role, a darker version of The Music Man's Professor Harold Hill, Lancaster's undeniable charm and signature cheshire cat grin make him an entirely convincing and deeply sympathetic con man in a wonderful film well deserving of its three Academy Awards and five nominations.

Elmer Gantry is all at once a salesman with the gift of gab, a seducer of women, a man with few morales, and a gifted preacher, and Lancaster manages to portray each side of Gantry with equal ease.  This isn't a role that calls for the type of tortured introspection common in so many Oscar winning roles, but instead an effortless charm and allure that few actors can pull off with anywhere near as much grace as Lancaster.  Yet it's not just a breezy role, and it's the darkness in the charm that makes Elmer Gantry an unforgettable character.

Of course, Lancaster's performance isn't the only jewel of the film.  There are several strong supporting performances from a talented cast, but none are stronger than Shirley Jones's turn as a spurned ex-lover of Gantry who has fallen into a life of prostitution.  Aside from a few breezy roles in films like The Music Man, as well as her best known role in The Partridge Family, I was largely unaware of Jones as a serious actress, and I walked away from the film almost as impressed by her as I was by Lancaster.  Aside from being effortlessly and stunningly beautiful, Jones gives quite the bravura performance in Elmer Gantry, shunning the easy choice to play a woe-as-me victim and instead giving the role real power and rage, despite the script's weakness in developing her character.  Jones takes what could have easily been a throwaway role and turned it into the role of a lifetime, and she was justly rewarded with the Academy Award.

Despite underdeveloping Jones's character, Richard Brooks's screenplay is sharp, especially in its crisp, lively dialogue.  Brooks was faced with crafting Gantry's sermons, which had to be both convincing enough to explain the conversion of the followers but also believable coming out of the mouth of an unordained con-man.  Though he had a lot of help from Lancaster's delivery, Brooks's dialogue more than carries its weight.  The third act sags a bit, and I am unfamiliar with the source material and I can't say for sure whether this is the fault of Brooks or the original material, but even with this fault the script is still excellent.

The film's final two nominations came for its score and for Best Picture.  The score is solid if unremarkable, and Andre Previn's four Oscars came for far superior efforts (Gigi, Porgy and Bess, Irma La Douce, and My Fair Lady).  Elmer Gantry was a strong contender for Best Picture, and of the four films nominated that year that I have seen (along with The Apartment, The Alamo, and Sons and Lovers; I have not seen The Sundowners), it is tied for my second favorite with Sons and Lovers, with the Oscar winning The Apartment taking the spot as my favorite film of the year.  Elmer Gantry is a very good film, but The Apartment is a true classic, and, for me, the choice was clear which was the Best Picture of the year.

Remaining: 3131 films, 862 Oscars, 5370 nominations

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