It's only a mild exaggeration to say that Marjoe Gortner tumbled out of the womb and onto the pulpit: He attained a peculiar fame as a precocious 4-year-old evangelist. By the time filmmakers Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith caught up with Gortner to make 1972's Oscar-winning Marjoe, his days as a preaching prodigy were long over, but the psychic scars of his childhood persisted.
Marjoe follows an adult Gortner on a farewell tour of sorts, as he preens and preaches his way through one final journey deep into the pocketbooks of enraptured Pentecostal crowds before moving on to more honest, rewarding labor. Gortner outs himself as a charlatan, a sensitive, progressive hippie still masquerading in public as a fiery pitchman for old-time religion. But like Robert McNamara in The Fog Of War, he only exposes limited amounts of his psychehis confessions are so guarded and calculated that they barely qualify as confessions at all.
Gortner and the film both stress the performance aspect of Gortner's razzle-dazzle sermons as much, if not more, than the religious component. When Gortner is strutting his stuff before rapt audiences, the film resembles a rollicking concert film more than a muckraking religious exposé. In Gortner's mind, at least, preaching for profit constitutes a paradoxically honest hustle. Gortner puts on one hell of a showcomplete with stage moves openly copped from super-sinner Mick Jaggerand in return gets paid accordingly, just like any other entertainer diligently working a loyal fan base. In one of the film's many semi-guarded moments, Gortner speaks about wanting to segue into acting and singing. Given the star power on display here, it isn't surprising that he went on to score regular appearances on television and in B-movies, a postscript that essentially reduces Marjoe to an entertaining, albeit less-than-intimate, 88-minute audition reel for future roles.
Key features: Filmmaker bios and Kernochan's Thoth, an engaging, Oscar-winning 40-minute documentary about an eccentric street performer who uses one-man operas to work through his race, gender, and sexuality issues.