The DVD Insomniac

Holey Holy

Chris Nashawaty explains the genius of the 1972 Oscar-winning documentary ''Marjoe,'' an expose about evangelism

ALMIGHTY DOLLAR In Marjoe , a one-time boy preacher lets a camera crew see how easily he could use his skills to fleece the faithful
Image credit: Marjoe: Kobal Collection
ALMIGHTY DOLLAR In Marjoe, a one-time boy preacher lets a camera crew see how easily he could use his skills to fleece the faithful

Remembering a fascinating documentary: ''Marjoe''

When I opened the paper Friday morning and read about the meth-and-male prostitute scandal surrounding the Rev. Ted Haggard, one of the country's top evangelical leaders, I couldn't help but wonder what ever happened to Marjoe Gortner.

Gortner, the no-doubt-long-forgotten subject of the Academy Award-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, got his first taste of fame at the age of 4, as the world's youngest ordained minister. By the time he was 6, he was barnstorming the Bible Belt, saving souls, speaking in tongues, and threatening in a voice of brimstone to come to your town and ''give the devil two black eyes.''

The thing is, he never believed a word of it. Groomed by his parents virtually from the time he could speak to sucker the faithful, little Marjoe was named after Mary and Joseph. He had a headful of curly blond ringlets, big jug ears, and a wardrobe of velvet Lord Fauntleroy short pants that his mother stitched extra pockets into so that he could stuff the spoils from the collection plate in them. The pint-size minister claimed to be able to heal the sick and cure the lame. But to his folks, he was little more than a pipsqueak Holy Ghost ATM, racking in the hard-earned, crumpled dollar bills of the believing in order to bankroll their sacriligeous schemes.

When Marjoe was filmed, Gortner was 28. And for some reason he felt the need to come clean for his past frauds. (It's also possible that he saw the documentary as his chance to break into acting as well — which he achieved in the '70s and '80s with roles on Kojak, in the disaster movie Earthquake, and even American Ninja 3).

As Marjoe kicks off, Gortner sits in front of the hippie documentary film crew and tells them about his crooked past. At 28, he's tall as a beanpole and looks a bit like the gangly, tie-dyed twin of '70s Tigers pitching phenom Mark Fidrych. Gortner conspires with the film crew to make a return to preaching on the Pentacostal circuit with their cameras in tow to watch him in action and expose the hypocrisies of the ''religion business.''

And what the camera captures is mesmerizing. After all, here is a man confessing to being a fraud, and then enlisting a movie crew to chronicle his fraud. In a sense, he's not only conning the faithful who turn out to hear him preach, he's conning the film crew, and, in turn, those of us watching the film.

Gortner turns out to be a natural born devil-killer. He bounds onto the stage of some rural tent meeting in the middle of nowhere and works the crowd into a hypnotic tizzy. He sweats charisma. He oozes fiery threats of damnation. And he minces and preens with moves he later admits to the camera that he lifted from watching Mick Jagger. When his sermon is over, the camera zooms in on old ladies in their Sunday best snapping open their pocketbooks and pulling out money they can hardly afford to give to a Judas in messiah's clothing.

When Marjoe came out, its tagline was ''You Keep the Faith... Marjoe Keeps the Money.'' And that pretty much sums up the film and its star to a tee. Gortner looks straight into the camera and confesses that he doesn't believe a lick of what he's saying onstage, and that he's out to expose the flim-flammery of his ministry. And yet, at the same time, we see him after a night's work, juiced up, and sitting on his waterbed counting his haul of crinkled ones and fives. Clearly, this is not a holy man. And yet, he's undeniably giving these people something they want. Something they need. He may be a phony, but what he's making these congregations feel isn't phony at all.

Part of what makes Marjoe such a knockout of a movie is not knowing exactly how to feel about it when its end credits come up. And when was the last time a movie made you feel something as complicated as that? I have a hunch there are some followers of the Rev. Ted Haggard who are feeling something like that this week.

Originally posted Nov 03, 2006
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