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. He definitely had ability and magnetism, but also the ill luck to appear in some of next decade-plus' worst movies: joining William Shatner and Robert Reed as suburban nice guys on vacation with unexpectedly warped neighbor Andy Griffith (!) in Pray for the Wildcats (1974); imperiled by giant rats in The Food of the Gods (1976); in Viva Knievel! (1977), 'nuff said; Star Wars rip-off Starcrash (1978); horror idiocy Mausoleum (1983); women-in-prison jewel Hellhole (1985); and Rambo-meets-T&A travesty Jungle Warriors (1984) replacing Dennis Hopper in that one after the latter was found wandering naked and senseless on location. Arguably only Linda Blair made more enjoyably awful movies in a particularly rich period for them.
Gortner had produced a 1979 version of the stage play When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? as a serious vehicle for himself in which he was duly impressive, albeit as yet another psychotic but that flopped. Around the same time he also started filming an autobiographical drama, only to reportedly abscond with the film cans when that never-finished project's money ran out. By 1990 (and American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt), a respectable acting career was clearly not going to happen, and the one he had held little remaining appeal. Gortner spent the next couple decades producing charity sports events. He's since retired, and shows no sign of any further desire for the public eye. He presumably prefers not being remembered at all to being remembered as a novelty.
Marjoe's co-feature is an obscurity I'd love to see an exposé documentary about: San Francisco-set The Second Coming of Suzanne (1974), a muddled parable about a megalomaniacal hippie film director (Jared Martin) obsessed with the titular chick (future Clint Eastwood consort Sondra Locke) he casts and, naturally, crucifies as star of his unfathomable film-within-the-film.
Suzanne itself is one of the most flabbergastingly pretentious movies ever made, the first and last screen opus of writer-director Michael Barry, son to second-tier Hollywood and Broadway leading man Gene Barry. Featuring a pre-fame Richard Dreyfuss and a pre-Decline of Western Civilization Penelope Spheeris in support roles, it's such a timepiece for better and far worse than you can begin to imagine. It should be required viewing for people who worship 70s cinema, as illustration of how easily all that era's best intentions could go to hell in a hand basket. To wit, "Second Coming" kicks off this week with an inimitable pair: Soul Hustler, a.k.a. The Day the Lord Got Busted (1973), and 1972's J.C., in which Jesus joins an LSD-crazed biker gang.
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