If you’ve never had the chance to watch the fascinating 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary, Marjoe take a look at it below. Produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, it’s flat-out great, a singular document chronicling the life of former child evangelist, Marjoe Gortner who, as an adult superstar preacher, admits on film that he’s using the whole evangelist racquet to scam answer-hungry parishioners out of their hard-earned cash. Gortner works with an infiltrating hippie film crew to expose his whole dishonest practice. Watching this is a truly I-can’t-believe-my-eyes experience not just because it gives first-hand evidence that the evangelist thing’s a scam (many of us are well aware of that already), but because of the willing, even eager participation of the film’s subject. This is just a truly only-in-America film that you have to see.
It starts by giving a little necessary backstory about Marjoe Gortner. Strangely, the name Marjoe is an odd combination of the biblical names Mary and Joseph, and from the age of three-and-a half, the boy’s parents, especially his bizarre evangelist stage mom, saw little Marjoe as a sanctified, Pentecostal cash cow. While other kids were out running around doing the things that kids are supposed to be doing, Marjoe was forced to memorize elaborate sermons with the threat of a pillow smothering or long dunks underwater hanging over his head when his mother got frustrated. She knew he had to appear in the public all the time to keep the money rolling in, so she didn’t want to leave any visible scars of abuse.
He would walk into press conferences as a six-year-old and tell the editor of whatever magazine that he was talking to that he was “here to give the devil two black eyes.” He blew people away while sometimes garnering all-press-is-good-press criticism. The film shows Marjoe as a child performing a wedding ceremony for full-grown adults while bedecked in a little white sailor suit with shorts and cowboy boots. He drew headlines. Preachers at the time were outraged at the sensationalism and the affront to the sanctity of marriage. Not unexpected of course. Preachers are always outraged about that sort of thing.
But all the while, despite the accolades, the controversy, LIFE magazine articles and all sorts of people telling him he was blessed with a supernatural gift sent straight from GAAAWD almighty, Marjoe Gortner never really believed it. He just knew he was a good performer trained to entice people to open their wallets, and he became very good at it.
Marjoe Gortner as a child evangelist
Quickly, the film cuts to a time years later where we find a now long and lean, tie-dye adorned, all-grown-up Marjoe Gortner in a hotel room with a very stoned looking hippie film crew. He’s debriefing them about what to do and what not to do when he lets them follow him around capturing his now thriving evangelistic enterprise on film. He’s very clear that the whole thing’s all an act, and Gortner warns the crew not to blow their cover by taking home any of the evangelist groupies (Marjoe sticks with the airline stewardesses himself) or smoking in front of anybody. He warns his far-out friends that they’re about to see people speaking in tongues, acts of faith healing, individuals writhing around on the floor, the whole nine yards.
Before you know it, film is being shot in a church and all of the above happens on camera. A lot of the “tent revival” footage throughout would be relatively unremarkable, except that you know the guy doesn’t really buy into one singular goddamned thing the he’s saying to the shouting crowds of gullible hayseeds and proto mega-churchers. You see how adept Gortner has become at getting people to hand over the “largest bill they have,” while behind the scenes we find him literally counting a pile of cash on a hotel room bed, shaking his head about how easy it is to get the money flowing. He knows he’s a business man, and he even has merch in the form of a record. He talks about how he used some kind of water-activated powder that made a cross show up on his head when he started sweating during one his “crusades.” People ate it up and, more importantly, ponied up the cash.
In a 1972 interview with Roger Ebert around the time of the film’s release, Gortner illuminates the materialist sham:
These people lead miserable lives, and suffer in silence because they know they’re going to get their reward in heaven. A preacher is a man who has been blessed by God on Earth. If he doesn’t drive a Cadillac, they don’t think much of him; God must not favor him. He’s got to look good, feel good and smell good.
There’s a moment in Marjoe where Gortner talks about imitating Mick Jagger when he throws down his stage act. He says he probably would have been a musician if he hadn’t chosen the ministry. The footage is pretty incredible. He nails it. He cock-struts, hand on his hip across the stage, the whole deal.
From the 1972 interview:
You have to go into the heavy religion in order to give people on excuse to loosen up and enjoy themselves. When I’d do a hip movement or a jump, or start walking over the backs of the seats, they’d say, ‘Hallelujah! God’s behind him!’ But if they saw Mick Jagger doing the same thing at a rock concert, that was the work of the devil.
Lest you conjecture, as I did, that the whole coming clean thing was itself a scam, Gortner claims in the 1972 Ebert interview that he actually stood to make a lot more money simply staying in the evangelical game.
A lot of people have charged that I made the movie for money. For example, some of the hard-sell radio preachers are attacking me. That’s ridiculous. At the time I quit, I honestly think I was the best preacher on the circuit, I could cut anybody. In five years I would have been on top and probably a millionaire. One thing a lot of people forget about is the tax advantage: I was tax-deductible.
Post evangelizing, however, Gortner eventually enrolled in acting classes and used his tan, blonde, curly-haired, So-Cal look to land himself a few leading rolls in films, including 1976’s Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw across from Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter:
Marjoe Gortner and Lynda Carter in ‘Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw,’ 1976
You can watch all of Marjoe below, courtesy of the Internet Archive.