Resurrecting 'Marjoe'

(This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.)

"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 website 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. And the DVD of Marjoe was released on January 31, with my short Thoth included as a bonus disc.

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?

This article is available on The American Prospect's website.

© 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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