An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, Marjoe offers a mesmerizing glimpse behind the curtain of big-time American evangelism, and the backstory of the movie is fascinating. In the late ’40s, a child named Marjoe Gortner became known as “the world’s youngest evangelist,” receiving ordination and performing weddings when he was still four years old. (Marjoe features incredible archival footage of the towheaded young Gortner performing feverish sermons.) The son of a Californian preacher, Gortner ended up becoming his family’s primary breadwinner until his teenage years. Convinced his parents had siphoned the money he snookered from gullible audiences at revival meetings, Gortner set off on his own until his mid-20s, when he returned to the revival circuit expressly for the purpose of making cash.
This film documents Gortner’s final revival tour, because by the time he was asked to participate in the movie, Gortner had decided to quit hustling rubes and become an actor. Thus, Marjoe is equal parts confessional, exposé, and reportage. About half the screen time comprises exciting scenes of Gortner working rural audiences with his frenetic stage presence, and the rest features Gortner in hotel rooms and other locations revealing the methodology of those who prey upon the Pentecostal circuit. The level of cynicism in these private scenes is staggering. “If I hadn’t gotten into evangelism heavily, I probably would’ve been a rock singer, because I enjoy working a microphone,” Gortner remarks, explaining that he copies moves from Mick Jagger. ”I enjoy getting it off onstage, but I really wish I was getting it off as a rock star or an actor, which is something I have to get into.” At one point, the filmmakers show Gortner and his business associates giggling while they count donations backstage after a rally, literally giddy from the high of ripping off susceptible patrons.
In one of the film’s most striking devices, Gortner describes gimmicks that work onstage, like laying on hands and speaking in tongues, and the picture cuts to Gortner demonstrating those maneuvers; it’s bracing to see big-time religion reduced to showbiz slickness. Somehow, the movie elicits a certain amount of sympathy for Gortner, who was pushed into evangelism before he was old enough to choose his own way, even though his motivation for reentering the Pentecostal world as a grown-up was morally bankrupt. “I am a hype,” he says, “but I don’t feel that I’m a bad hype.” True to his word, Gortner quit the ministry after the tour featured in Marjoe, embarking on an unsuccessful singing career before transitioning to acting with appearances in the disaster movie Earthquake (1974) and assorted B-movies and telefilms.
Marjoe: RIGHT ON