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Marjoe (and other praise-worthy oddities) at "The Second Coming of the Vortex Room"

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Gortner as "The World's Youngest Evangelist" in 'Marjoe'

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Today, seeing high-profile evangelical Christians reveal themselves to be charlatans or hypocrites is old news. Even the spectacle of homophobic mega church prig Ted Haggard, outed as a fan of male hustlers and crystal meth, resurfacing on Celebrity Wife Swap induced a few shudders but no real surprise. The plunge from public sanctimoniousness to scandal and newly angled self-promotion is by now too familiar to shock.
A few decades ago, however, the face of American evangelism was inclusive, straight-arrow centrist Billy Graham. Elmer Gantry-like tent revival shows seemed a thing of the past, or at least one whose few remaining practitioners traveled well off the mainstream radar. So there was considerable exoticism to Marjoe, a 1972 documentary that plays the Vortex Room next Thursday as part of a religion-themed February schedule.

Its subject was a 28-year-old Pentecostal preacher — titular name a combination of "Mary" and "Joseph" — who'd been "The World's Youngest Evangelist," pushed onto the stage of a lucrative salvation circuit from the age of four. By his own estimation, his parents-managers-slave drivers made $3 million or so off his precocious act as God's littlest huckster, none of which he ever saw. Some years after running away as a teen, he'd gotten his secular head together, but reluctantly re-entered the revival biz — working it half the year in order to fund the other six months as a California flower child.

As ample archival footage shows in Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan's portrait, Marjoe Gortner was indeed the real thing, at least in terms of having a natural gift for mimicry, rhythmic "testifying," crowd control, and snake-charming dollars from wallets. But he'd never been a believer, and in adulthood was uncomfortable providing religious experiences to people who innocently assumed he shared in them. His restless showman's energy needed to be channeled in another direction — rock or movie stardom, perhaps — so Marjoe the Movie was intended to chronicle, expose, and bury one career while hopefully launching a new one.

It worked, to an extent. Marjoe got a lot of attention, winning the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. The New York Times called its subject "Evangelism's answer to Mick Jagger" (whom Gortner admitted stealing moves from). With the youth-oriented Jesus Movement then at its peak, some church leaders were not happy at an instance of Christian hoaxdom getting such wide exposure. Though what's striking about the film now is not just how charismatic (in the non-divine sense) its protagonist remains, but how sincere he is: Marjoe doesn't judge, condescend to, or snark at his nightly congregations, whose members he can make faint dead in holy rapture with a laying-on of hands. He knows they're having an authentic experience, but also that "I don't have any 'power.' Hundreds of people were healed at my crusades, but I know damn well it was nothing I was doing. Sometimes I feel like I should do repentance to the audience." So Marjoe was the record of his quitting.

It was just the start, however, of a wider public's acquaintance with Marjoe Gortner. He made one album on a major label called Bad, But Not Evil. (Are the Black Lips aware of this?) Hunky in a slightly goofy way, he soon started guesting — usually as some kind of seductive wacko — in TV series like Kojak, The A-Team, and Fantasy Island.

He became a familiar face on the big screen, too, peaking early in commercial terms with a memorable role as a psychotic supermarket employee and National Guardsman who spends all of 1974 disaster epic Earthquake trying to force himself on a 'fro-haired Victoria Principal.

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