1972 Best Documentary: ‘Marjoe’ (Updated)
SYMPATHY FOR THE EVANGELICALS
1972 Best Documentary: ‘Marjoe’ (Updated)Apr 06
“Marjoe” won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
SYMPATHY FOR THE EVANGELICALS
By Sarah Kernochan
April 25, 2007
In 1971, my partner Howard Smith and I went on an indelible odyssey into Pentacostal America, at a time when the born-again faith was still marginal, seemingly a holdover from the Depression-era “old-time religion” revivals. New Yorkers clothed as Christian brethren, we were traveling in disguise in order to shoot our controversial documentary “Marjoe” (now in re-release on DVD).
Our guide and film subject was young Marjoe Gortner, a handsome, charismatic preacher whose career began at the age of four, when he was “called to God” (or so his parents had everyone believing). Marjoe talked behind the scenes about the tricks of his trade, the faking of miracles and glossalalia; raising money for the phony “ministries”; how to work up the crowd; his non-belief in God. He sold cheap red bandanas as “prayer cloths,” hawked LP’s of his childhood sermons, and split the “tithing” take with his host minister in front of our camera.
We filmed at four completely different churches in the West, South, and Midwest. We expected that one or two of the ministers besides Marjoe might turn out to be crooked, but to our surprise all four were conspicuous flimflammers. One actually delivered the immortal sermon “God Wants Me to Have a Cadillac.” A fourth minister, the only one we thought might be sincere, was later arrested for running stolen cars across the Mexican border.
Marjoe shook his head in amazement at how eager congregations were to believe in him rather than coming to God on their own, eliminating the middleman so to speak. Marjoe knew the film would “out” him but he thought it was worth it. He said, “I’m hoping they’ll see it’s not necessary to have some person to get you off, to put your faith in.” Because so often that person is in it for something else besides benign invocations of the Holy Spirit.
No evangelicals saw the film, of course, because their ministers banned it. And now, some 35 years later, they have grown stupendously: 4 out of 10 Americans define themselves as “born again.” And they’re still not getting the message. How many Jimmy Swaggarts, Jim Bakkers, and Ted Haggards have to crash and burn for them to see the pattern? Pentacostalism offers – besides salvation – fantastic entertainment, and thus it attracts entertainers. Among these, inevitably, are the showmen, hypocrites and con artists who build huge financial empires by exploiting people’s earnest faith…
By Sarah Kernochan
“We’re here to make a film about Brother Marjoe, praise the Lord.” The words sounded awkward — almost as if we were speaking in tongues. It felt bizarre to be calling strangers “Brother” and “Sister.” My co-directing partner Howard Smith and I had never spent much time in churches, let alone the revival tents and auditoriums of the Pentecostal faith. He was Jewish; I was technically Christian but my father, with a straight face, preferred to identify himself as a Druid. Yet there we were, in 1972, embarking on the Holy Roller circuit, navigating the Bible Belt, recording American evangelicals in their hyperemotional religious rites as if they were an obscure tribe in Pago-Pago.
Our guide was a fire-and-brimstone minister named Marjoe Gortner. A charismatically handsome man in his late 20s, he frequently performed as a guest preacher for congregations across America, wherever the born-again movement had rooted. What his audiences didn’t know was that he was leading a double-life. He hung out and smoked dope with his hippie friends in LA for half the year, and then when he ran out of money he would go back to preaching, changing on the plane from tie-dye to mod-style suits and ties, changing his persona to “Brother” Marjoe.
He had been a Bible Belt star most of his life. His parents, both itinerant evangelists themselves, noticed his gift for mimicry and his phenomenal powers of recall when he was 3. They set out to transform him into a preaching sensation, a “miracle child.” He was taught lengthy sermons, complete with gestures and lunges, and was ordained at the age of 4. They kicked off his career in 1949 by having him perform a marriage while a Paramount newsreel camera rolled. That got him into Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the “World’s Youngest Minister.”
Marjoe and his parents toured the country for eight more years, raking in offerings from eager crowds, some $3 million by his own reckoning. Receiving his sermons from heaven, delivering souls, healing the sick, he seemed like God’s little angel, or — as his father put it ingenuously — “a preaching machine.”
After a time, the act broke down. Marjoe’s father absconded with the money, the prepubescent boy was too old to be a novelty anymore, and his rage surfaced. He left his mother and lived off the kindness of nonreligious strangers in California for the duration of his adolescence. Then he found himself drawn back to the flame — the spotlight, the adulation, and of course the cash — of the evangelical circuit. His audiences never knew that his belief in God was nil, and the host preachers had no idea that he had, in his other life, joined with legions of hippies.
When he reached his late 20s, Marjoe tried to make a break for once and for all. In 1970, he arrived in New York to become an actor. He thought it would help his career if he gained a little publicity. He approached my partner Howard Smith, hoping to interest him in his story. Howard had a syndicated FM radio show in which he interviewed celebrities. What he and I learned about Marjoe’s incredible story convinced us to make a documentary feature about him.
In 1972, the film was finished in time for the Cannes Film Festival. Roger Ebert saw it at an out-of-competition screening in rented theater. “The real sleeper this year is Marjoe,” he wrote. “It generated the most electric response of anything at the festival.” Film audiences seemed entranced by Marjoe, who sang like a canary about the cynicism of the religion business and the chicanery of his fellow preachers — including himself. As another critic wrote, “It proves that not only is Elmer Gantry still alive and well, but that the reality is more absurdly repulsive than the fiction.”
Shortly after, the movie opened across the northern United States. The press was unbelievable: nearly every major national publication — Time, Newsweek, Life, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Esquire — ran stories and photos of this brash young sellout. Folks in the Bible Belt, however, never got to see the film. The distributor was too afraid of the furor it would cause, so he refused to open it in any city south of Des Moines. But anyone watching the Oscars in 1973 couldn’t have missed it, because it won the Best Documentary Feature award for Howard and me.
Flash forward 30 years. The evangelical sect has grown from this fringe cult to a huge, vibrant mass movement. It is in one’s face 24/7. According to a Barna research poll in 2001, four out of ten Americans reported that they consider themselves “born-agains.” The president and his administration have shown a keen interest in the evangelical agenda.
I was working at Duart Labs in Manhattan, finishing up another documentary, a short about a street musician, Thoth, another galvanizing performer like Marjoe. This performer, however, sought spiritual deliverance through presenting a solo opera, singing all the voices while playing violin and dancing, and providing percussion with bells and whistles tied around his ankles. (This film would go on to win my second Academy Award in 2002.) Marjoe, meanwhile, had disappeared. My Web site, sarahkernochan.com, had brought me increasing inquiries about the film, mainly because people seemed interested in evangelicals again. And I had nothing to tell them.
Joe Monge, who heads Duart’s video department, happened to mention that they’d been clearing out their vault of film materials. Duart struck the original theatrical prints of Marjoe. I casually asked him to look and see if there was any remnant of the film in their archive. He returned with an inventory. They had everything. Original 35mm blow-up, 16mm negative, magnetic tape, mix, out-takes, TV spots, trailers. I was staggered. And resolved on the spot to rescue the film.
At that point, I brought in Hollywood attorneys Alan Wertheimer and Darren Trattner. They helped me trace the ownership to a small company, which had bought Marjoe as part of a larger film catalog. The problem was: They were bankrupt. The catalog was in receivership, and nothing could be purchased from it because Sony Film Corp had a lien on the holdings of the company. On top of that, the company’s president was walled up in Florida and not talking to anyone.
It took two years. But the day came: I signed a single piece of paper making me the owner of this ancient documentary. Now what? As if — pardon my spirituality — from God, an e-mail arrived on the same day, funneled through my Web site. A company called New Video, which distributes mostly documentaries, and especially Oscar-winning ones, wanted to know who owned the rights to Marjoe. They wanted to put it out on DVD.
More invitations arrived. At the time of this writing, and thanks to my film rep Ira Deutchman at Emerging Pictures, the film is playing for a limited time at the IFC Center in New York and in theaters in Florida and Delaware.
What will Marjoe mean now, after all these years? I am hoping that the DVD will reach those parts of the country in which the film was never released. The Bible Belt especially. I hope people of other faiths will understand where the power of the evangelical movement has come from, understand the lure of the music and the promise of a life-altering spiritual experience. I hope they will see, too, that this ecstatic union with Christ is also … sometimes … commandeered by ruthless and greed-fueled “servants of God” — the ministers who have, since the year Marjoe was made, erected a formidable enterprise sprawling over the media, corporate America, and the Beltway, with no notion of stopping until the United States becomes one big mega-church.
One preacher not profiting from this success will be Marjoe Gortner. Instead, he came clean. Will anyone listen again?
By Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
Marjoe Gortner was the first Evangelical preacher to blow the whistle on his profession. In his documentary film, Marjoe, made in the late sixties, he revealed age-old tricks of the trade and exposed some of the entertainment aspects of the popular movement that have made it big business.
If he lives forever, Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner will most likely always be “The World’s Youngest Ordained Minister.” Born January 14, 1944, Marjoe was almost strangled during delivery by his own umbilical cord. The obstetrician told his mother that it was a miracle the child survived, and thus “Marjoe” — for Mary and Joseph — the Miracle Child, took his place at the end of a long line of Evangelical ministers.
From the beginning, his preaching skills were meticulously cultivated. Before he learned to say “Mamma” or “Poppa,” he was taught to sing “Hallelujah!” When he was nine months old his mother taught him the right way to shout “Glory!” into the microphone. At three, he could preach the gospel from memory, and he received drama coaching and instruction in every performing art from saxophone playing to baton twirling. On Halloween, 1948, at the age of four, Marjoe was officially ordained and thrust into a wildly successful career as the Shirley Temple of America’s Bible Belt, the sprawling non-geographic community of strict adherents to the Christian scriptures. In the following decade he preached to packed tents and houses coast to coast, as enthusiastic audiences flocked to see the Miracle Child who allegedly received sermons from the Lord in his sleep. Owing to his mother’s careful training, harsh discipline, and indomitable ambition, Marjoe’s sermons were flawlessly memorized, right down to each perfectly timed pause and gesture. Frequent Hallelujahs and Amens punctuated his performances, which were cleverly promoted with titles such as “From Wheelchair to Pulpit” and “Heading for the Last Roundup,” which Marjoe preached wearing a cowboy suit.
Marjoe’s captivating sermons rarely failed to fill the church collection plate to the brim, and his renowned faith healings were miraculous even to him. In his teens, however, Marjoe grew disenchanted with the continued deception of his divine powers. He left the Evangelical movement in search of more legitimate means of employment. He spent some time in a rock band, trying to move with the changing times; then he returned to the Evangelical circuit to make his revealing motion picture. Marjoe is one of those frank films that delves deeply into sensitive areas of American morality that slip over the line into profiteering.
We found Marjoe in Hollywood last year, where he now resides on a secluded hilltop estate in Laurel Canyon. After we drove up the winding dirt road that leads to his lofty home, Marjoe greeted us cordially and ushered us into his sunken living room, where he pointed out some familiar features of the sprawling southern California landscape visible through his wall-sized picture window. We told him that we had come to hear about his miraculous powers of “saving” and “healing,” trade secrets that neither his film nor his subsequent biography unraveled satisfactorily. Tall, handsome, with lion-colored curls and a penetrating stare, even in T-shirt and faded jeans Marjoe had an air of power about him. From the outset of our talk, however, he squashed all notions we might have had that his talents were in any way extraordinary.
“I don’t have any power,” he started off, just to set the record straight. “And neither do any of these other guys. Hundreds of people were healed at my crusades, but I know damn well it was nothing I was doing.”
Yet, Marjoe admitted, he remained somewhat baffled by the thousands of souls he helped to “save” and the numerous illnesses he seemed to have cured. His own insight into his preaching skills was on a decidedly earthly level. Based on his years of training and experience, he located the source of his divine power squarely out among the flocks who assembled to receive his gifts.
“You start with a guy who obviously has a problem,” he explained. “You’ve got to begin on that premise. Things haven’t worked out for him, or he’s looking for something, or whatever. So he goes to one of these revivals. He hears very regimented things. He sees a lot of people glowing around him — people who seem very, very happy — and they’re all inviting him to come in and join the clique and it looks great. They say, ‘Hey, my life was changed!’ or ‘Hey, I found a new job!’ That’s when he’s ready to get saved, or Born Again; and once he’s saved, they all pat him on the back. It’s like he’s been admitted to this very special elite little club.”
Marjoe downplayed his own role in the proceedings. As he saw it, the real show was in the audience; he served primarily as a conductor.
“As a preacher,” he said, “I’m working with the crowd, watching the crowd, trying to bring them to that high point at a certain time in the evening. I let everything build up to that moment when they’re all in ecstasy. The crowd builds up and you have to watch it that you don’t stop it. You start off saying you’ve heard that tonight’s going to be a great night; then you begin the whole pitch and keep it rolling.”
For Marjoe, who has seen it a million times, the divine moment of religious ecstasy has no mystical quality at all. It is a simple matter of group frenzy that has its counterpart in every crowd.
“It’s the same at a rock-and-roll concert,” he asserted. “You have an opening number with a strong entrance; then you go through a lot of the old standards, building up to your hit song at the end.”
The hit song, however, is spiritual rebirth, the product of a time-tested recipe for religion to which the preacher and every member of the audience contribute some small but active ingredient. Then, according to Marjoe, the only fitting encore to the overwhelming moment of becoming saved is a personal demonstration of the power of that newfound faith. This is the motivating factor that prompts speaking in tongues, also known as the “receiving of the glossolalia.” As Marjoe explained it, this well-known Evangelical tradition requires even greater audience participation on the part of the tongues recipient and the entire audience.
“After you’ve been saved,” Marjoe continued, “the next step is what they call ‘the infilling of the Holy Spirit.’ They say to the new convert, ‘Well, now you’re saved, but you’ve got to get the Holy Ghost.’ So you come back to get the tongues experience. Some people will get it the same night; others will go for weeks or years before they can speak in tongues. You hear it, you hear everyone at night talking in it in the church, and they’re all saying, ‘We love you and we hope you’re going to get it by tonight.’ Then one night you go down there and they all try to get you to get it, and you go into very much of a trance — not quite a frenzy, but it is an incredible experience.
“During that moment the person forgets all about his problems. He is surrounded by people whom he trusts and they’re all saying, ‘We love you. It’s okay. You’re accepted in Christ. We’re with you, let it go, relax.’ And sooner or later, he starts to speak it out and go dut-dut-dut. Then everyone goes, ‘That’s it! You’ve got it!’ and the button is pushed and he will in fact start to speak in tongues and just take off: dehan-dayelo-mosatay-leesaso … and on and on.”
Marjoe paused. Flo was dumbfounded by his demonstration, although he hadn’t gone into the jerking, trance-like ecstasy that is commonly associated with the tongues movement. I’d seen the classic version in his movie, yet even in this restrained demonstration, Marjoe appeared to be triggering some internal releasing or babbling mechanism. I asked him how he brought it about.
“You’ll never get with that attitude,” he joked. Then he went on to explain the true nature of the experience. His perspective showed it to be a process that requires a great deal of effort to master.
“Tongues is something you learn,” he emphasized. “It is a releasing that you teach yourself. You are told by your peers, the church, and the Bible — if you accept it literally — that the Holy Ghost spake in another tongue; you become convinced that it is the ultimate expression of the spirit flowing through you. The first time maybe you’ll just go dut-dut-dut-dut, and that’s about all that will get out. Then you’ll hear other people and next night you may go dut-dut-dut-UM-dut-DEET-dut-dut, and it gets a little better. The next thing you know, it’s ela-hando-satelay-eek-condele-mosandrey-aseya … and it’s a new language you’ve got down.”
Except that, according to Marjoe, it’s not a real language at all. Contrary to most religious understanding, speaking in tongues is by no means passive spiritual possession. It must be actively acquired and practiced. Although the “gift” of tongues is a product of human and not supernatural origin, Marjoe displayed tremendous respect for the experience as an expression of spirituality and fellowship.
“I really don’t put it down,” he said. “I never have. It’s just that I analyze it and look at it from a very rational point of view. I don’t see it as coming from God and say that at a certain point the Holy Spirit zaps you with a super whammy on the head and you’ve ‘gone for tongues’ and there is it. Tongues is a process that people build up to. Then, as you start to do something, just as when you practice the scales on the piano, you get better at it.”
Already, we could see the difference between Marjoe and some of his modern-day fellow preachers and pretenders. Unlike many cult, group, and Evangelical leaders, Marjoe has always held his congregation in high regard. During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards. Marjoe realized that his perspective would not be shared by most Born Again Christians.
“The people who are out there don’t see it as entertainment,” he confessed, “although that is in fact the way it is. These people don’t go to movies; they don’t go to bars and drink; they don’t go to rock-and-roll concerts — but everyone has to have an emotional release. So they go to revivals and they dance around and talk in tongues. It’s socially approved and that is their escape.”
Within that context of social entertainment, Marjoe took pride in his starring role as a traveling evangelist.
“It was my duty to give them the best show possible,” he said. “Say you’ve got a timid little preacher in North Carolina or somewhere. He’ll bring in visiting evangelists to keep his church going. We’d come in and hit the crowd up and we were superstars. It’s the charisma of the evangelist that the audience believes in and comes to see.”
What got to Marjoe, he explained, and eventually drove him out of the business were many of the same disturbing aspects of the Evangelical movement we had noticed in our own travels and interviews.
“When I was traveling,” he said, looking back on the old days, “I’d see someone who wanted to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I’d return and that person might be a hard-nosed intolerant Christian because he had Christ. That’s when the danger comes in. People want an experience. They want to feel good, and their lives can be helped by it. But then as you start moving into the operation of the thing, you get into controlling people and power and money.”
Marjoe shook his head sadly. Indeed, he didn’t strike us as the type of person who would be comfortable in that role. In the sixties, while he was exploring new outlets for his talents, he watched his former profession grow to vast international dimensions. Since then, he has followed the curious rise of America’s religious cults, among them Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.
“Moon is doing the same thing I do,” said Marjoe, “only he’s taken it one step further. He’s suggesting to people that he is the Messiah. In my religion, the old-time religion, it’s total blasphemy to suggest that. Moon has gone too far, but that’s a heavy number on people, because everyone wants to meet a Messiah.”
Marjoe was quick to point out that Moon’s preaching powers, like his own, are by no means divine or even innate. Marjoe acknowledges that his power over an audience derives primarily from the skills of rhetoric and public speaking that have been passed down to us from the Greeks. Those tools have long been in the public domain, and they make up the stock-in-trade of everyone whose work involves personal contact with other individuals and groups.
“It’s the same whether you’re a preacher, a lawyer, or a salesman,” he told us. “You start off with a person’s thought processes and then gradually sway him around to another way of thinking in a very short time.”
Although Marjoe no longer consciences the use of his preaching talents for evangelical purposes, he still uses his skills in areas that have nothing to do with religion.
“I was campaigning for Jerry Brown when he was running for governor,” he said. “I gave speeches when he couldn’t show up. This was a whole different kind of speech for me, because I didn’t know the people and the whole thing was political. One time I was supposed to go to a rally for a thousand AFL-CIO workers in San Francisco, and I thought, Oh, no, how am I going to talk to these guys? I needed a hook to get the audience, because I knew a person’s mind is usually made up within the first minute or so. If they like you and you say the right things at first, then you can take them on to other things they might not ordinarily agree with. But all I had to go on was that, and structures of speech I knew from preaching.”
He paused again, allowing us a moment to consider his predicament.
“When I got there they were a little hostile,” he continued, “and I was very nervous about it. There was a podium with two flags on it, an American flag and a California state flag. I walked up — it was very quiet — and as I was walking up there it came to me, I don’t know from where. I grabbed the American flag and I crinkled it in my hand. I looked at it and sort of gave it a little toss back against the wall and said, ‘I remember when Betsy Ross made that flag. Today it’s made in Japan.’ Well, a roar went up as that struck a chord in those workers, and I was God from that moment on.”
Today Marjoe restricts the use of his talents to his acting career and to social causes he deeply believes in. Foremost among those causes is informing the public about some of the rhetorical techniques that are being used to manipulate their thoughts and emotions. Most techniques Marjoe is in command of are simple and age-old, but so effective that they can be equally powerful even when and audience has been explicitly forewarned of their use. Toward the end of our conversation, Marjoe told us a story that revealed the fineness of his rhetorical skills. In contrast to the massive physical experiences such as intense group rituals and intimate personal crises that have been recognized as major contributors to the snapping moment, Marjoe demonstrated how words alone, artfully manipulated, may be used to influence groups and individuals, even to the point of evoking the overwhelming emotional response of being “saved.”
“I lecture in about twenty colleges a year,” he began, “and I do a faith-healing demonstration — but I always make them ask for it. I tell them that I don’t believe in it, that I use a lot of tricks; the title of the lecture is ‘Rhetoric and Charisma,’ so I’ve already told them the whole rap explaining how it’s done, but they still want to see it. So I throw it all right back at them. I say, ‘No, you don’t really want to see it.’ And they say, ‘Oh, yes. We do. We do!’ And I say, ‘But you don’t believe in it anyway, so I can’t do it.’ And they say, ‘We believe. We believe!’ So after about twenty minutes of this I ask for a volunteer, and I have a girl come up and I say, ‘So you want to feel better?’ And I say, ‘You’re lying to me! You’re just up here for a good time and you want to impress all these people and you want to make an ass out of me and an ass out of this whole thing, so why don’t you just go back and sit down?’ I get really hard on her, and she says, ‘No, no, I believe!’ And I keep going back and forth until she’s almost in tears. And then, even though this is in a college crowd and I’m only doing it as a joke, I just say my same old line, In the name of Jesus! and touch them on the head, and wham, they fall down flat every time.”