The controversial life of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson has been fictionalized many times, but, to date, no one has attempted a proper biopic. By default, that means the made-for-TV mystery The Disappearance of Aimee is the most significant movie about one of the Jazz Age’s most fascinating characters. Focusing on a scandalous trial during which McPherson was accused of faking her own kidnapping, the movie boasts two impressive stars: Big-screen actress Faye Dunaway plays McPherson, and Hollywood legend Bette Davis plays her mother. It’s not hard to guess what lured Dunaway to the role, because it’s a showy part full of contradictions, and the centerpiece of the film is an epic-length monologue. Dunaway’s beauty, charisma, and intensity serve the picture well, giving the screen version of McPherson magnetism akin to the messianic power the real McPherson held over her millions of followers. However, John McGreevey’s script lacks a strong point of view. Although the picture subtly implies that public skepticism about McPherson’s kidnapping story was justified, The Disappearance of Aimee never makes an argument for one reading of history versus another. Accordingly, the movie feels unsatisfying despite having been made with a fair degree of intelligence and skill.
The real facts underpinning the story are as follows—in 1926, McPherson disappeared while swimming in the Pacific near Venice, California. Her mother proclaimed McPherson dead to the evangelist’s megachurch throng and to McPherson’s myriad radio listeners, but some refused to accept the loss. Reports of sightings poured in, and two people drowned while searching for her remains. Then McPherson’s mother received a ransom demand from kidnappers, followed, some time later, by a surprise call from McPherson herself. The evangelist claimed she escaped from her kidnappers, wandered alone in the desert, and found her way to a hospital. Los Angeles authorities later sued McPherson, alleging she violated public morals by fabricating the kidnapping story to cover up an affair with a married man. The combination of a lack of evidence and McPherson’s impassioned direct address to the jury complicated the court proceedings.
While The Disappearance of Aimee deals with all of this material, too many interesting scenes are played off-camera. (Presumably the filmmakers thought that showing McPherson’s kidnapping would legitimize her version of events.) From sermon scenes to trial scenes, The Disappearance of Aimee is all talk, talk, talk, culminating in the aforementioned monologue—a 10-minute speech during which McPherson lays out the particulars of her abduction. Alas, there’s a world of difference between Dunaway’s monologues here and her long speeches in the same year’s theatrical feature Network. (McGreevey is no Paddy Chayefsky.) Still, The Disappearance of Aimee is interesting, and some elements—including James Woods’ performance as a snarky investigator—add sharp edges.
The Disappearance of Aimee: FUNKY