Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner first became known — way back in the late 1940’s — as the youngest person to be ordained as a preacher. Just four years old, he possessed an innate ability to speak sermons and lead revival meetings. By the time he was sixteen, the Gortner family had taken around three million dollars from the faithful, money that Marjoe’s father would run away with. From then on, Marjoe was a beatnik until he needed money in his early 20’s and went back to preaching, basing his style on being a rock star like Mick Jagger.
He became famous for a different reason when he starred in this film, a behind-the-scenes documentary about Pentecostal preaching made just as Marjoe planned on leaving the faith for an acting career.
While this won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, it was a lost film for several years. That’s because due to the fears of bad reactions to the film in the Bible Belt, it was not shown widely in theaters any farther south than Des Moines, Iowa.
The film finds Marjoe in what he claims are his final months of touring the tent revival circuit. That’s why he offered the documentary film crew full and unrestricted access to his 1971 tour. The crew includes Howard Smith, who also directed the documentary Gizmo!, appears as a TV commentator in the original Dawn of the Dead and was also a famous DJ who conducted long-format interviews with stars like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison; his co-director was Sarah Kernochan, who would go on to write 9 1/2 Weeks and What Lies Beneath.
The film juxtaposes Gortner preaching, praying and even healing people in Los Angeles, Fort Worth, Detroit, and Anaheim while revealing to the crew backstage that he is a non-believer, while also showing them the tricks of the evangelist trade. Even more damning are the moments where preachers pull bills out of buckets, fold them and make huge stacks of the money they’ve taken from those that only want to be saved.
In an interview with Vice, Kernochan said, “I didn’t warm to Marjoe. He was difficult to work with, very paranoid, and mistrustful, and tense. I’m not sure we were very good at relaxing him; maybe nobody could. I was concerned about him being likable. There was no point in making a film about someone who you never heard of that was portrayed as despicable. But when I saw the scrapbook, I realized that as long as people knew about his childhood, they would forgive him for anything because of what was done to him.”
She also added that one of the great ironies of the film was that one of the camera operators, Richard Pearce, objected to how the movie made many of the worshippers look dumb. How is that ironic? Well, he went on to direct Leap of Faith with Steve Martin. She said, “After putting the film down for making religious people look stupid, he ripped off some things…I thought that was really hypocritical.”
There’s also a scene that she said was cut from the film, where an artist asked Marjoe if he was being used by Jesus Christ, even if he didn’t believe in Him. The question disarmed him and twisted his already conflicted feelings.
Did they find any positive religious figures in all the time they filmed? Kernochan confessed, “I wish we had found a preacher that I felt was genuine, but we just never found one. They must be out there. But we didn’t go out of our way to find crooks.”
Even the release of the film only benefitted Marjoe, leading to a career as a rock star and releasing one album called Bad, But Not Evil, as well as being a correspondent for Oui magazine and starting his acting career. He appeared in the pilot for TV’s Kojak, as well as Earthquake, The Food of the Gods and Starcrash.
After appearing on Speak Up, America!, an 80’s reality show and Circus of the Stars, Gortner worked for charity organizations until he retired in 2010. He was married to Candy Clark (Q, the remake of The Blob, Cat’s Eye and Buffy’s mom in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer) for about a year in the late 70’s.
In the Nine Satanic Statements, LaVey put forth: “Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit!” You can argue that the people at these revivals didn’t know they were being lied to. Or perhaps the lie allows the psychosomatic mind to heal pain. Regardless, Marjoe and the men in this movie are profiting from them.
That said, Stupidity is at the top of the list of the Nine Satanic Sins. “It’s too bad that stupidity isn’t painful. Ignorance is one thing, but our society thrives increasingly on stupidity. It depends on people going along with whatever they are told. The media promotes a cultivated stupidity as a posture that is not only acceptable but laudable. Satanists must learn to see through the tricks and cannot afford to be stupid.”
I think it’s intriguing that right on the Church’s Bunco Sheet, they encourage members to “develop the cold-reading abilities of a Carney, rather than the naïveté of the mark.” Their biggest warning about getting involved with other groups outrightly states: “When someone claims to have a direct line of communication with Satan, watch out. Selling that kind of mysticism is exactly how Christianity has kept people enslaved in ignorance for centuries. It’s one of the things we’re fighting against.”