1 posts categorized "Religion"

01/29/2010

R.I.P: Jean Simmons; you ignited my movie love

Chalkuse
The scene of the boys-will-be-boys "crime."

(Courtesy:  OakCliffYesterday.com/Office of War Information Photograph Collection)

I was just reading the Jean Simmons obituary in the New York Times.

Who am I to criticize "the gray lady," as the Times is sometimes called?

Jeanuse
Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon.

(Courtesy:  MGM/UA Home Video)

But it appears to me that the summation by Aljean Harmetz of the life and career of the great British actress who succumbed to lung cancer (according to her agent) at the age of 80 at her home in Santa Monica, CA,, the other day failed to include something.

In addition to sharing the screen with Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus," Marlon Brando in "Guys and Dolls" and Burt Lancaster in "Elmer Gantry," Simmons, you see, played another major role.

Simmons and Lancaster are the reason I've spent 30 years writing about movies and much of my life willingly succumbing to their magical spell.

I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager and beginning to think about what, if any, place I might have in this world when my older brother, three years my senior, got his driver's license in 1959.  We lived in Grand Prairie (TX), a sleepy underachieving gas stop between Dallas and Fort Worth where you could buy hamburgers seven for a dollar. 

There wasn't much for a kid like me to do on weekends except walk across the railroad tracks to town, or more specifically to the Uptown Theater for a Saturday afternoon at the movies.

The long, joyous afternoon typically began with cheesy MC Jerry Silver (the owner or manager) hopping on stage and pretending to swallow a lighted cigarette.  After a newsreel, cartoons and maybe a "Flash Gordon" serial short, there'd be a double-feature.  John Wayne was usually involved, as were "bad hombres" and/or "ingins."  (The Duke's words, not mine.)

That all changed when my older brother got the keys to the car.  Looking back, it was probably a minor rite of passage for him; freedom and an introduction to the world of unchaperoned dating, etc.

A trip to the nearby Chalk Hill Drive-in, however, changed my life in 1960.  For some reason I can't recall, my brother and a couple of his buddies actually let Little Larry tag along.  I remember my mother asking what was showing.  My brother replied something about a Disney movie.

It is very likely that a Disney movie was playing in theaters (including drive-ins) back then.  The Mouse House released "The Sign of Zorro" and "Swiss Family Robinson" that year, along with "Pollyanna."  I'm pretty sure my brother didn't say we were heading out to see "Pollyanna."

Mother would have snapped that something risky and bordering on dangerous emotional territory was up.  The trip would have been canceled before my brother could back our '57 Chevy out of our two-strip, cracked driveway.

But we didn't pull up to the Chalk Hill Drive-in speaker pole and face the screen playing a Disney movie.  This carload of semi-naughty boys were "getting away with something."  I was in the back seat; not a hostage nor a willing co-hort, but just a forgotten extra kid in the backseat.

We were there to see "Elmer Gantry." And it changed my life.

Set in the 1920s, "Elmer Gantry" starred Jean Simmons as an angelic-looking tent evangelist named Sister Sharon Falconer.  Her life changes drastically and unexpectedly (like mine) when a loud, but charismatic traveling salesman named Elmer Gantry shows up.  He's quick with a joke and even quicker to pull out his flask of whiskey.

Lancaster, nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards for "From Here to Eternity," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Atlantic City," won instead for this amazing, grandiose title-role performance.  Elmer takes a shine to the saintly evangelist and pulls out all the stops -- even joining her troupe of tent preachers -- to use his gift of salesmanship to, shall we say, win her over.

I'll never forget how Lancaster emphasized the name "Sister Sharon," lifting it to such heavenly heights in his sermons that she might have been one of the original disciples.  More often, though, Elmer stoked the hell fires of the crowd by charming them before Bible-thumping the fear of everlasting damnation into them:

"I have here in my pocket - and thank heaven you can't see them - lewd, dirty, obscene, and I'm ashamed to say this: French postcards. They were sold to me in front of your own innocent high school by a man with a black beard . . . a foreigner."

If my brother or anyone in the front seat with him had turned around, they would have seen a future film critic stunned by the brute power of effective, provocative drama as the projected colors of "Elmer Gantry" danced across my frozen face.

It was a more innocent time back then.  The President John F. Kennedy assassination (just a few miles from the Chalk Hill Drive-in in downtown Dallas) and the Vietnam War were yet to sour this country's idyllic state.

Movie stars back then didn't hop into bed or slam each other into a wall to signal coupling.  Filmmakers like Richard Brooks, who directed and wrote the screenplay for "Elmer Gantry" and who was married to Simmons for 17 years, used nuance to its full potential.

After much emotional seduction, Elmer is extra perky one morning.  As for Sister Sharon Falconer, she can't concentrate on that night's sermon.  She's too busy pouring sand out of her shoe very slowly; savoring the previous night's free-fall to more common earthly activities.

Yes, the con man gets the girl in "Elmer Gantry," another shock brand new to me at the time.  And although painful damnation is coming, Simmons, Lancaster and Brooks welded an appreciation for powerful, dangerous drama into my heart and brain that will not go away until I do.

How dare they bring to the screen such provocative subject matter of a lovable lout posing as a preacher not for a greater good, but, pretty much, just to get laid?

How dare them indeed, and thank God they did.  

So, rest in peace, Jean Simmons.  You'll always be pure, sweet, divine -- if a little gullible -- God-loving Sister Sharon Falconer to me.

You've already left us, but I leave you with the line Elmer Gantry loved to woo you with the most:

"Love is the morning and the evening star." 

Followed, of course, by a salesman's wide, cheshire cat grin.