By: Alex Phuong (Two Beers) –
The classic contrast between good and evil has formed the basis for countless stories. However, such conflict is not as easily identifiable in complex literature and films, and those stories are much more complicated than ones intended for children. In fact, sometimes conflict can come about from within in comparison to an external issue, like the dragon in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Because of the different layers associated with conflict, controversy happens. That is exactly what happened when Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry. The themes of religious hypocrisy within this novel were scandalous, and eventually led to one of the greatest films of 1960.
This film contains two of the greatest Oscar-winning performances in motion picture history. Burt Lancaster earned his only Oscar for playing the eponymous Elmer Gantry, who uses charm and wit to conceal his internal sinfulness. Similarly, Shirley Jones earned her only Oscar and nomination for her supporting role as the vengeful prostitute, Lulu Bains. Jones has even noted in her memoir that winning the Oscar was “the proudest moment of [her] career.” She also found it disappointing that Jean Simmons failed to earn a nomination for her leading role as Sister Sharon Falconer. Nevertheless, the film still managed to earn three Oscars out of its five nominations, including a “Best Picture” nod, even though it lost to The Apartment.
Like many films based on controversial material from another medium, the only issue with this film is its screenplay. The film only covers less than one hundred pages of Sinclair Lewis’s original novel, and Sister Sharon Falconer in the film is much different than her literary counterpart. In a bizarre way, though, the plot is still accessible in the film version even though it deals with a lot of taboo subject material, such as sin, guilt, and (possible) redemption. The screenplay is also very clever because Elmer Gantry actually condemns Sinclair Lewis during one of the sermons. Richard Brooks also won the Academy Award for his adaptation, which includes the very famous phrase, “He rammed the fear of God into me […]”
Elmer Gantry deals with very touchy subjects, which was why no studio wanted to initially finance the film when Richard Brooks decided to adapt Sinclair Lewis’s novel. This film might also be offensive to devout Christians. Even with all of the “anti-Christ” themes in this film, it is still a fascinating examination of just how wicked some people can actually be. The theme of the nature of wickedness will never fade away from literature and film, such as when it is depicted in the Broadway musical Wicked, but it does teach audiences to be careful about judging people given the subjective nature of reality.
Elmer Gantry (1960) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Elmer Gantry says, “Love is the morning and the evening star” (and have another drink when Shirley Jones says that line, too!)
Take a Drink: whenever André Previn’s Oscar-nominated Main Theme repeats itself throughout the film after it is played during the opening credits
Drink a Shot: every time any of the characters talk about God, the Bible, and/or quote Bible verses.