Thursday, September 17, 2015
Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan | Marjoe
the religion addict
by Douglas Messerli
Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan (directors) Marjoe / 1972
There are at least two ways of perceiving Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s 1972 documentary on the evangelist, faith-healer Marjoe Gortner: to see it as the story of a con-man revealing his tricks and, in the process, trying to con his new movie audience into believing him to be a good actor; or to see it as a sad documentary of an abused child who grew up to regret his continuance of the only career for which he had been trained. In fact, the human being, Marjoe (much like his “combined” name, based on Mary and Joseph) encompasses both of these stories, which is what makes him so interesting to watch.
Nonetheless Gortner feels guilty, and takes the opportunity of joining up with a film crew to reveal both the hypocrisy of his acts and his manipulation of the believers. In these scenes— wherein Gortner gives up his secrets of how he has based some of his dancing movements on the performances of Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones and how to beg for every last penny the faithful have in their purses and pockets, and provokes others to admit (forgetting perhaps that they are on camera) how they use the media to successfully line their pockets with enough money buy Cadillacs, expensive jewelry, and even virgin land in Brazil—the likeable and charismatic Marjoe suddenly is transformed into a cynical, girl-chasing, hippie, dope-head who leaves us cold. In other words, it’s only when he pretending that we can really like the man; as a real everyday figure Gortner is a bore.
Despite a great deal of attention this film received upon its premiere in New York and Los Angeles, which included winning an Academy Award for the best documentary, the film was not shown throughout most of the rest of the country, and, with the death of its disinterested distributor, Donald Rugoff, was almost lost. Sarah Kernochan—apparently the more involved of the two directors—had only one deteriorated and unusable copy of the film. It was only in 2002, quite by accident, that, while meeting at the building in Marjoe was first processed, someone mentioned to her that they were cleaning out their archives, where she found a negative, trailer, outtakes and other materials which allowed the film to be brought into a DVD. And only recently has the film been recognized for its quality.
Marjoe Gortner went on to act in 15 later films, but none of them were of significance; his abilities as an actor, it became clear, were minimal. And in retrospect, we realize, that the charismatic boy and young evangelical adult was not acting as much as miming the role of a preacher man. Gortner, apparently, could perform no other role with such vivacity. Is it any wonder, as he himself admitted, that, despite is inability to believe, he had become “a religion addict.” As one woman quietly asked him on his last tour: “Have you ever thought that maybe Jesus really is working through you?” Marjoe’s seeming inability to think things out, ultimately, is what leaves a somewhat bitter taste in this viewer’s mouth.
Los Angeles, September 17, 2015