Thursday, February 10, 2011

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Casting Coup Month: Elmer Gantry

Best Picture
Best Actor - Burt Lancaster (WON)
Best Supporting Actress - Shirley Jones (WON)
Best Adapted Screenplay - Richard Brooks (WON)
Best Score, Drama/Comedy - Andre Previn

I think I saw Elmer Gantry in the fall of 2009 or thereabouts. It was one of those things that happens on a Sunday afternoon: bored, channel-surfing, checking out what's on TCM. Well, as it happens, I saw Robert osborne talking, which meant that either I just missed or was just in time for whatever was happening; and when he said, "Here, from 1960, Elmer Gantry," I sat the fuck down. I had no idea what it was about, but I did know that it won the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones. As an Oscar completist, it was VITAL that I check this out.

It had me from the first title card, a disclaimer reassuring its audience that the depiction of evangelists within the film was not reflective of the majority, but of a small minority exploiting the faith of their congregation. Now, I don't know what y'all know about me, but I went to church for years -- YEARS. I'd say I was probably sixteen or seventeen when I stopped going. I went through four pastors and three churches, with occasional visits to other places of worship. Jewish, non-denominational, Catholic, Baptist...and my family is Adventist. One of my last days at church was an argument with my Sabbath School teacher and fellow students about homosexuality. Apparently, I was wrong for not believing that prayer makes gayness go away, for thinking gay people were not headed to Hell, nor did they need saving. At the same time, you will never see a more devoted, loyal, there-for-you group of people than churchgoers. Warm and loving, truly a group that loves the sinner even while they hate the sin. Hell, our Sabbath School teacher was a rabid liberal otherwise, outright saying that Bush was ruining the country and Clinton was a sexy man. Church is funny.

Anyway. My point is, stories about religion, the church, the faithful, etc., hold an interest for me. That Elmer Gantry boasted this and Oscar cred was enough to keep me in front of that TV for at least an hour. By the end of the movie, I knew I had seen one of my favorites. I was taken aback by the masterful performance given by Burt Lancaster in the title role. You can hear Jesus in Elmer's voice, even when you know that's the furthest from his mind. Shirley Jones plays the bad girl well, while Jean Simmons was unfairly snubbed for her powerful performance as the lady preacher who believes in her work...and her own press. The score by Andre Previn had me from the first note. By the time the movie ended, my jaw was dropped, my arms were goosebumped, and I felt lifted.

So of course I read the original novel by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1927. And man, was that a difference. It's about 500 pages, I think, but the material that provides the basis of the film takes up only five chapters, with details from later and earlier chapters thrown in. For example: My favorite character from the movie is Arthur Kennedy's atheist journalist who is both Elmer's conscience, rival, and friend, Jim Lefferts. While the novel does feature an atheist friend of Elmer's named Jim Lefferts, he is only an influence in the first couple of chapters, taking place at the University. The Lefferts of the film is probably writer-director Richard Brooks, with some influences from the novel's Frank Shallard, a rival of Elmer's at seminary who, though he becomes a preacher, secretly turns to atheism. The film spans a year or two; the novel spans thirty years. Elmer's ex-lover Lulu Bains is a dumb housewife in the novel; in the film, she is a cynical prostitute. And, of course, there's Sister Sharon Falconer, who Lewis portrays as more crazy and less Christian than her celluloid counterpart.

They are interesting as companion pieces, as a look at methods of adaptation. Sinclair Lewis himself told Brooks to make extensive changes, advising him to read criticisms beforehand so that he wouldn't make the same mistakes (Sinclair Lewis was awesome). Since the material is so ripe, however -- and since the subject matter is as timely now as it was back then -- I've often wondered when a remake would come...and what it would look like. I invite you to take a look for yourself...apres le jump:

Who is She: Singer for Sister Sharon's church. A pretty young thing, she is attracted to Elmer, and he to her. Fortunately, Sharon and her manager put a stop to anything before it happens.

Originally played by:
Patti Paige (Dondi, Boys' Night Out)
My Choice:
Alexa Vega (Spy Kids, Sleepover)
A pretty voice and a virginal face, Repo! aside.

Who is He: An actual holy man, a preacher who believes in God and Jesus Christ and lives by his laws. He is a kind, warm man, but losing his congregation because of his conservative honesty. He does not preach with the fire-and-brimstone theatricality of an Elmer Gantry. In the film, he tries to convince the National Conference not to recognize Gantry or allow him and Sharon near their convention. In the book, he has my favorite line, when Elmer is waxing on about his tactics to get people coming to church every week and tithing, etc.: "Mr. Gantry, why don't you believe in God?"

Originally played by:
John McIntire (Psycho, Rooster Cogburn)

My Choice: Academy Award/SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor, SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Into the Wild)
Hal Holbrook (That Evening Sun, Water for Elephants)
That line would be killer in Holbrook's voice. The man should have won in 2007...maybe 2009, too. His age, accent and bearing make him perfect for this role, the only completely moral character in the tale.

Who is He: A meek man who hates Elmer, Frank went into the church a god-fearing man. Years of being pastor have made him an atheist, however, and the Bible Belt does not take kindly to such views. Shallard appears only in the novel, but much of his character informs the film version of Jim Lefferts.

My Choice: Indie Spirit Nominee for Best Actor (Soldier's Girl)
Lee Pace (Marmaduke, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn)
Pace can geek it up when he wants; now would be a good time. With a great speaking voice and lean physique, it isn't hard to imagine him as the preacher whose stress has worn him down. Indeed, check out other "worn-down" performances like The Fall, or Infamous.

Who is He: In the film, an atheist journalist who's familiar with Elmer's past. He's there for Sharon and Elmer as a friend, but abhors the way Elmer takes advantage of his followers. In the novel, Elmer's atheist roommate who tries to quell the young man's fear of a possible Hell.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (Bright Victory) and Best Supporting Actor (Champion, Trial, Peyton Place, Some Came Running), Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Trial)
Arthur Kennedy (Lawrence of Arabia, Fantastic Voyage)

My Choice:
Joe Anderson (Control, Becoming Jane)
Suitable for the college-aged Lefferts, but he could play the journalist just as well. Anderson's often the best thing about a movie (Across the Universe, The Crazies), showing off his talent for slightly smug but passionate young men. Sure, he and Elmer wouldn't have a past if he played the Richard Brooks Lefferts, but maybe they know each other by reputation. And wouldn't a young man try to make a name for himself in journalism by exposing the doings of a popular evangelist?

Who is He: Sister Sharon's manager. In the film, Bill Morgan doesn't trust Elmer, and tries to steer Sharon away from his influence. In the novel, the British Cecil Aylston is in love with Sharon, and Elmer convinces her to fire him.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Twelve O'Clock High)
Dean Jagger (White Christmas, Bad Day at Black Rock)

My Choice:
David Tennant (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Fright Night)
Obviously I'm going with the Aylston angle, drawing on the strength of Tennant's comic chops.

Who is She: The daughter of a small-town deacon. In Elmer's youth, he put the love of God into her...again and again. In the book, she winds up marrying her cousin and naively meets again with Elmer down the line. In the film, her father turns her out and she becomes a prostitute who tries to blackmail Elmer.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Elmer Gantry), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (The Music Man)
Shirley Jones (Carousel, Grandma's Boy)

My Choice: Golden Globe/SAG Award Nominee for Best Actress [in a Drama] (Thirteen)
Evan Rachel Wood (Whatever Works, TV's Mildred Pierce)
Wood's Southern naivete (Whatever Works) giving way to wanton cynicism (many bad/knowledgable girl roles)? Yes! Of course yes!

Who is She: A popular female preacher who holds large tent revival meetings. She goes from town to town, inspiring followers with her message, collecting their tithes and offerings. Her dream is to build a huge wooden sanctuary with a big, beautiful crucifix. She also allows Elmer to join her both on the altar...and in her room. In the film, she is misguided, somewhat hypocritical, but pious. In the book, she's kind of crazy, with an altar to the goddess and astronomy in a wing of her family mansion.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress (The Happy Ending) and Best Supporting Actress (Hamlet), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actress (Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (Guys and Dolls), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (How to Make an American Quilt)
Jean Simmons (The Robe, The Big Country)

My Choice: Academy Award/SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter), BAFTA Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Doubt, The Fighter), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (Enchanted), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Doubt, The Fighter), Hollmann Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Doubt)
Amy Adams (Cruel Intentions 2, The Muppets)
It's a complicated role, and we all know I think the world of Adams. This role would give her a chance to balance her popular persona (quiet, good woman) with the persona people ignore (bold, articulate, great speeches). For rest assured, Sharon needs people to think she's the former in order to accomplish the latter. Adams could do it, and she looks like everyone's idea of holiness. Except for that temptress-shaded hair.

Who is He: A boisterous college athlete-turned-failed salesman-turned-tent revival preacher. Elmer has a natural charm, a way with people that demands attention. He's a loud, dishonest guy who every now and then feels the fear of God his mother tried to instill in him long ago. His fire-and-brimstone sermons are an entertaining complement to Sharon's more sedate ones, making them a huge hit on the religion circuit. Gantry is best-known for his talk on love, "the morning and the evening star".

Originally played by: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor [in a Drama] (Elmer Gantry), BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actor (Birdman of Alcatraz, Atlantic City)
Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Sweet Smell of Success)

My Choice: Academy Award/BAFTA Award/SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor (Walk the Line) and Best Supporting Actor (Gladiator), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy (Walk the Line), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Gladiator, Hotel Rwanda)

Joaquin Phoenix (Signs, The Village)
Well, we know he can do a country accent. Now that he's done with his "doc", it'll be nice to see him on the big screen again. He's a good-looking guy, and I imagine he could make it powerful enough for Gantry. Phoenix has played loud mouths in power before anyway, so this could be a combo pack.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Best Actress: Amy Adams
Best Supporting Actor: Joe Anderson, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, David Tennant
Best Supporting Actress: Evan Rachel Wood

Thoughts? Feelings? Ideas of your own? Feel free to share 'em in the comments!


Andrew K. said...

Joaquin Phoenix is the sort of actor who doesn't do half as much work as he should. I could cast cast him (ideally) in any number of remakes/adaptations from Heathcliff in Wuthering Heghts to any Monty Clift role - but he's so old now.

Ugh, damn you time. Why must good actors age?

TomS said...

Joaquin Phoenix would lend some subtlety and vulnerability to Gantry which would add more depth to the film. Nice! You know, I was thinking Amy Adams in the Shirley Jones role. Jones was cast against her wholesome type and won an Oscar. I'm thinking the only way poor Amy Adams will win an Academy Award is to play a prostitute!

Walter L. Hollmann said...

"Ugh, damn you time. Why must good actors age?"

Better yet, why are all the legendary roles tailor-made for ages 20 - 35? After that, it's all supporting parts!

I thought about Adams for the Jones role as well, but for me, Sister Sharon has such a powerful presence, an unwavering confidence that Adams has only begun to show us. And she's a whackadoo in the novel, so I would love to see Adams let loose like that.