Directed by: Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan
Starring: Marjoe Gortner
I’m not totally convinced that Marjoe is an anti-religious film, and I don’t think it’s a slam at the Pentecostal church. Sure its title subject is nothing more then a huckster selling his now non-existent faith to blinded believers, but the thirty-something years since his ‘farewell to the faith’ tour was documented by a group young hippie filmmakers has brought us multiple stories of fallen evangelists giving into the greed and adultery they claimed to condemn. What’s more shocking then Marjoe’s unflinching willingness to manipulate and deceive his audiences is their naivety and willingness to give in.
Marjoe Gortner was born the son of not one, but two preachers. Ordained a minister at the age of 4, Marjoe (a combination of Mary and Joseph) was considered a child prodigy by some, a dangerously exploitive gimmick by others. The film opens with footage of an eight year old Marjoe preaching to the camera with the articulation and charisma of a 30 year old. The act is cute, but not entirely convincing. You can imagine his parents off camera, mouthing along to his every word, hoping he doesn’t slip up. The comparison’s to overworked child stars and 10 year old pageant queens is pretty obvious, but neither Todd Bridges or Danny Bonaduce had the power to legally marry a couple at the age of eight.
The film follows a pretty straight forward narrative, cutting from interviews with Marjoe to footage of his sermons. In these very casual interviews, he openly talks with the surprisingly young filmmakers about his faith, his strict childhood, and of course, his fraudulent preaching. Marjoe seems to have an unbelievable amount of trust in the filmmakers, exposing every secret and intention behind his money making scheme. Charismatic and seemingly intelligent, Marjoe may be a con-man, but somehow his intentions seem to be overshadowed by a sort of retribution. In a way he’s taking something back from the establishment that robbed him of his normal childhood. The problem is he’s also exploiting the faith of those who trust him most.
One of the films most powerful scenes has Marjoe at his best, preaching with the excitement and flare of a rock star. He even sites Mick Jagger as one of his biggest influences when it comes to his performances. He struts back and forth, hand placed firmly on his side, cocking his head with confidence and spouting out the gospel as though they were the lyrics to Street Fighting Man. After a long and exhausting performance comes the pay off…literally. Marjoe holds up a red bandana, proclaiming it a ‘prayer cloth’. He asks the audience for their smallest bill, whether it be a one, five or twenty. With that bill they can purchase the red cloth and be touched by the power of prayer. Everyone lines up, money in hand, as Marjoe blesses each soul with a hand to the head sending them packing, uncontrollably shaking with the spirit and twenty dollars poorer. The scene ends with Marjoe pouring out a bucket of bills in a celebration of success.
Overall, Marjoe is an insightful and sometimes sad look at fraud and hucksterism in organized religion and how the power of the sixties counterculture transformed a pre-destined preacher into a free thinking revolutionary, albeit conman. Unfortunately, we don’t witness the backlash that must’ve occurred after the eventual exposure of Marjoe’s true intentions and beliefs. There’s no mention of court cases or jail time. The seemingly happy and guilt free Marjoe would eventually end up acting, playing small parts in such television shows as The A-Team, T.J. Hooker and Falcon-Crest, which makes sense really. While forcing Marjoe to memorize sermons and perform to an audience as a child, what his parents didn’t realize was that in the end they were planting the seeds for an episodic television star and not a preacher. I guess the two aren’t so different after all.