Marjoe (1972) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Marjoe (1972)

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Danny LIKEI don't think I'd want to be married by a six year old. Those were my first thoughts coming from my watching of Marjoe, and far from my last.

Marjoe is a documentary about and starring Marjoe Gortner. At the age of four, his parents, both coming from a long line of ministers, decided that it was his turn to enter the divine service. The novelty of a four-year-old warning about the unpleasantries of the devil was a boon to newspapers and newsreels who were more than happy to slap that kids face on anything that someone could put down a dollar for.

As Marjoe grew, his parents made a mint off his scruffy red hair and exuberant proselytizing. reaching into the millions by the time he was a teen. His dad ran off with most of it, and his mother ditched him as well, leaving Marjoe alone, confused and a faded media star. He takes some time to rediscover himself, does so, and realizes that an easy way to make money is to head back onto the evangelical circuit: after all, he knows the dance moves, and that's all it takes to get their money.

Marjoe models his stage presence on Mick Jagger, but not his lips.

However, somehow, despite his overly and justifiably cynical views on evangelical Christians, Marjoe grows a conscious. He begins to feel bad for fleecing people and for helping out people who do the same, and so he decides that he wants to expose what a fraud he and the whole system truly is.

He doesn't believe in what he says, he notes, adding, "I find it hard to believe that they believe it too."

But they do, and a lot of Marjoe shows these old time revival tents filled with sweating men and women praising and shouting hallelujah and then follows Gortner back to the back from where the ministers are grubbily dolling out the dollar bills and smiling brightly.

Gortner's interactions with the film crew in hotels between the sermons help to reveal him. He tells the camera crew to dress up, to look nice, and be assertive if they're asked if they've been saved. "They're zealots! They want to convert everyone!" he warns. He also passes along advice not to date anyone in the congregation; best if you stick with the nice stewardess who you're sharing a hotel with.

Take me up to the second floor and past the icemaker, baby.

And here is where we get into what I like about Marjoe over something like Jesus Camp. Marjoe has grown and matured, and has come to grips with who he is and what he's done with his life. While Jesus Camp is a shocking documentary about the horrors of homegrown evangelicalism right under our noses ("Behold the terrifying SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHER! Boogidy boogidy!"), Gortner is a man who went through much worse-- including intense publicity and being robbed blind by his parents-- yet he turned into a respectable man.

Well, as respectable as a man can be when he still wants to become an actor, but you know how it is.

Gortner grew into something better than the evangelical religion that was shoved down his throat, and that's why he seems troubled through most of his titular film. It's obvious that he loves the performing but he knows he's perpetrating a con.  His moral dilemma is striking, and the risk he is placing on himself is always clear. This movie is an admirable act of confession in a world predisposed against such a thing.

Knowing all of the similar con men who flourished in the subsequent decades, from Pat Robertson to Jim Baker, and it's stunning how all of Marjoe's warnings and illustrations of the evangelical prayers-for-profit machine were ignored. Evangelists may look back at Gortner as a bad apple, but the film and the passage of time has proved that big show evangelism is just a barrel full of 'em.

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Posted by Danny

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