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A Look Back at 'Marjoe,' the 1972 Documentary About Evangelical Con Men

I spoke with the film's co-director Sarah Kernochan about why the Academy Award–winning doc was lost for three decades, and how it was found again.

Josiah Hesse

Josiah Hesse

Marjoe is the story of an abused child preacher who grows up to become an Evangelical con man, living a double life as a dope-smoking, girl-chasing hippie in LA. The documentary went on to win the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and earned massive amounts of critical acclaim. But despite the accolades and outrageous story, the film was only played in a handful of theaters on the coasts and was never screened below the Bible Belt. It was eventually forgotten and thought to be lost for good due to the only known copy being badly damaged. However, in 2002, the original negative was rediscovered and the film was released three years later on DVD, introducing Marjoe to a new generation with a greater appetite for films that were critical of religious institutions.

Born in 1944, the film's subject, Marjoe Gortner, was a child star of the Evangelical Christian circuit who became an ordained minister at the age of four. (His parents derived his name from a combination of Mary and Joseph.) Throughout his childhood, he officiated weddings, delivered theatrical sermons, and earned his parents an estimated $3 million, none of which he ever saw. Marjoe alleges that he was subject to emotional and physical abuse by his parents, who he says subjected him to a type of waterboarding when he had difficulty memorizing sermons. At 16, he ran away and fell into the blossoming counterculture of 1960s California.

Marjoe returned to the Evangelical tent-revival circuit in his 20s, capitalizing on his adolescent fame. Marjoe admits in the film that he was never a believer in Christ as an adult or a child, and by his late 20s he began to feel guilty for profiting from the hellfire and damnation services he believed were psychologically harmful to people.

Seeking a music and acting career outside of religion, Marjoe relocated to New York City, reaching out to Village Voice columnist Howard Smith about doing a profile on "The World's Youngest Preacher" who was now all grown up. Smith wasn't interested in the story, but his girlfriend, 25-year-old Sarah Kernochan, had the idea of making a documentary on Marjoe. She and Smith, both new to the medium, co-directed the film, which shows Marjoe performing at Evangelical churches and revealing industry tricks of how to squeeze every last dime out of an audience.

Smith had an established career as a radio DJ and journalist before the movie, but Kernochan was less accomplished at the time. She says that she was often dismissed as Smith's ornament, and had to fight for respect as a co-director of the film. Following a recording career with RCA as a singer-songwriter, Kernochan went on to win her second Academy Award in 2002 for the documentary short Thoth, about a transgender street performer.

Smith passed away last May from cancer at age 77. Kernochan, however, has kept busy as a screenwriter and novelist. I connected with her to discuss her experiences on the road filming Marjoe, the struggle to be taken seriously as a female director, and why the film remained buried for three decades.

Child preacher Marjoe Gortner performs his rehearsed sermons

VICE: What did you originally pitch to the studio as the idea behind Marjoe?Sarah Kernochan: The concept was to follow him around and do interviews explaining what he was doing. There were things we didn't know we would get, but hoped to, like the scene of Marjoe counting money with the minister. For that, we were shooting at the end of a corridor with a long lens. He didn't know that Marjoe was still wearing a mic.

Since this was your first major project, what was your life like leading up to Marjoe?
Well, Howard and I were boyfriend and girlfriend, living together in New York. I used to ghostwrite his column, though I never got a byline. He later started giving bylines to women who wrote his stuff. He had writer's block. He would gather the information, and I would put it together and write it up for him. Anyway, I left that in order to become a screenwriter. Arrogantly, I thought I would go to the top right away. I had written my first script, got an agent, and when Howard saw me working on projects he said, "I want to make movies too. Why don't we work on something together?"

How'd you meet Marjoe?
He was in New York and had given up preaching, once again. He had tried to give it up before, but the money was too good. He would smoke dope on the beach and hang out with his friends, but then suddenly he would need money again, and that was the only way he knew how to make money. I think he was in his early 30s at the time. He doesn't look it in the movie. He felt that he was a natural performer, naturally charismatic. He loved being in front of an audience and prancing around. He wanted to become an actor or a singer. But he kept putting it off through lack of money and focus. When he came to New York, he discovered quickly that no one was going to handle him. It was going to take a long time for him to break into show business. And he was impatient because he was used to being a star.

So, ever the hustler, he went around with his scrapbook, detailing this weird childhood that he'd had, which was very impressive. He had approached a few people to do interviews with him, which he thought would get him attention, and reach the ears of Bible Belt ministers, who would blackball him. That way, he'd be unable to go back to the churches. Which was something he needed to have happen. As he says in the film, he was a religion addict. One of the people he approached was my partner, Howard. But Howard only did celebrities, so he wasn't that interested. But he brought the material home to show me and he said, "This is so fascinating, why don't we give it to the Maysles Brothers?" And I said no, let's do it ourselves, and that's when we were off and running.

I imagine it was a very challenging time for you, being so young and working on your first financed project while dealing with such an eccentric character in such an unfamiliar world.
It was more than that. You weren't around at that time, but this was pre-feminism. And I was a pretty, young girlfriend of a much older guy who had some cred. He kept pushing me in front for people to deal with, God bless him. He was very influential in giving me the confidence to have the career that I have. But Marjoe, in spite of the fact that he really loved women, did not think that they were professional, or that I was anything more than a girlfriend on the project. And I had to keep proving it over and over and over again.

I think in Marjoe's eyes, I was very diminished. I think he was also hearing that from other people in the crew. It was very hostile territory for any woman—especially a young woman trying to break into film as a director. And I couldn't parlay the film into anything after Howard and I split up because nobody believed that I had anything to do with it. Now the irony is that people always come to me, instead of to him, because I was the one that had to prove that I was a creative force of some kind.

What was it like having Marjoe as a collaborator?
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. An important aspect to the outline that I wrote before we began editing is that you never see him as an adult for the first ten minutes of the movie. You were only in the world of his childhood. And then when you come to meet him you have enough pathos to last the rest of the movie, no matter what he does.

Was it difficult for you to attend those church services, night after night, knowing what you knew about Marjoe and that industry? Did you ever feel complicit in the act?
Some people felt that way about us. And I see it today in the comments on Netflix and things like that, which I do read. People question our ethics since we were disguising our motives as filmmakers, trying to pass for Maroje's born-again posse. I don't know that we did any outright lying though, or at least very little of it. People just assumed that we were in the program.

All of the crew had different reactions, kind of depending on what our religious upbringing was. Here's a very ironic and fun fact: There was a cameraman with us who was really upset about what we were doing, saying we were making people look foolish. His camera had a really wide lens that made things look slightly distorted, and it took me looking at his footage to realize that it did make people look like fools. We had to be careful when we used any of that footage. And the great irony is that that cameraman went on to become a Hollywood director. His name is Richard Pearce, and he directed a film called Leap of Faith, with Steve Martin.

You're kidding!
Yeah, after putting the film down for making religious people look stupid, he ripped off some things from Marjoe. That movie owes a great deal to Marjoe, and it makes religious people look stupid. I thought that was really hypocritical.

What about Howard?
He was Jewish, so he found the whole thing like going to New Guinea. He'd never even been in a church before, so he was all, "Wow! Isn't that amazing!" He never had any problems at all with what we were doing.

As someone who wasn't brought up in any faith—I agreed with Marjoe when he said that church could be "just a great group therapy. If we could get rid of all this hellfire and damnation stuff, it could be really useful." I really love that comment, because we were watching these people [at the Pentecostal services] in a state of complete release. You could do anything there. You could run around screaming gibberish and people would assume you were filled with the Holy Spirit. Which must have been amazing for people with difficult lives, whose religion requires them to control a lot of what they do, but it also gives them this moment of ecstatic release. And I kind of envied them. I could never get that loose unless I took acid or something.

I go back and forth on whether Marjoe really was a con man. After all, those people were paying for a show, and they sure got one.
There was a scene we had to cut where an artist friend of mine was painting a portrait of him and talking to him in a very motherly way, which was very disarming for Marjoe. He relied very much on women to be a soft presence for him. And she said to him, "Have you ever thought that maybe Jesus really is working through you?"And he really was disarmed by that. It took him by surprise, because as he says in the film, he just doesn't believe. And this was twisting everything one step further, suggesting that maybe you're being used by this thing you don't believe in.

All of the laughter, dancing, and shouting in religious services can be infectious. Did you feel anything while being in those churches?
Yes. Definitely. I was only in my early 20s then. I'm 67 now. I did go on to have my own spiritual experiences, and I do believe that spirit is all around, within you, without you. I think these people may very well be tapping into something real. And I think that religion offers them a way to it. But they couldn't imagine that there are other ways to have that experience, outside of the church.

Certain moments of the film carry a very subtle cynicism, like when the white lady is asking for a donation from the black church. When she says she doesn't spend money foolishly, the camera zooms in on a jeweled brooch on her neck.
That was a famous shot, because it wasn't a cutaway. The camera man put two and two together and zoomed in on that. It's just a wonderful shot. I don't know if we even need to call it a commentary, because that's just what it is: They tell them that if the preacher does well, then you'll do well. If the preacher drives a Cadillac, you'll drive a Cadillac. 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.

I would've maybe thought that the preacher in Dallas was honest, but about ten years later he was arrested for passing stolen cars across the border from Mexico and went to jail.

It appears that the film was on such a great track after it's success at Cannes. But what was it that that kept the film from being widely distributed and where did it play?
New York and LA. Places above that waistline of America—the Bible Belt. It didn't even play in hip Southern cities like Austin. The distributor was afraid of what would happen. Also, he wasn't that supportive of the film. It was odd. I don't know why. He was a crazy person. His name was Donald Rugoff. He actually did have a brain tumor, I'm not just exaggerating.

We got more publicity than almost any other movie that year, we were written up in almost everything—and we only had one negative review. He could've easily capitalized on that, but he just let it run its course. He put it in theaters, but he didn't put a lot behind it. So the publicity is what sold tickets for a while. It was a big hit in New York and LA, but I don't know if anywhere in between was the same. I think it was an object of curiosity.

Were there any religious people who were trying to keep the film from reaching a wide audience? Like the preacher who didn't know he was being recorded while counting the money?
No. In fact, that preacher, he was kind of a cheerful guy. He turned right around and used the film to publicize his church. He put out a flyer that said something like "Come to a revival meeting with stars of the movie Marjoe!" Seriously.

So the film did well with the critics, but didn't reach a wide audience. After that it was just shelved and forgotten?
Well, Don Rugoff died, and then his catalogue was eventually purchased by Columbia. Someone put Marjoe out on VHS in the 80s. But the quality was horrible, and I later found out it was because they didn't have the negative, only a worn-out copy, and it was just ugly. But they went bankrupt and Columbia put a lien on the catalogue. I had my attorney call Columbia and ask them to separate the film from the catalogue.

But when I bought the rights, I didn't know what I had. There was one print of the film, but it was so deteriorated, it was unusable. The sound was all fuzzy. I thought, I went through all of this and there's nothing! At the time [2002], I was also editing a documentary short in the building that we had Marjoe processed. And I was having a meeting with one of the guys at the lab and he says, "We're cleaning out the archives in our vault and are going to send everything to the Library of Congress." And I said, "Is there anything with the name Marjoe on it?" And he said yes, and it was everything. The negative, the trailers, the outtakes, everything—and it had been kept in perfect temperature control.

That must have been quite a moment for you.
Yes. And the Academy went berserk too. They had been asking me about the negative, because they wanted to restore it, but I didn't know where it was. The other thing was, a few days after I located it, a video company called me asking if I had the movie, or knew where it was, because they wanted to put it out on DVD. And that's who I went with.

Looking at the success of a film like Jesus Camp, and the DVD success of Marjoe, it seems like the film suffered because of the time it was released in. Documenting Evangelicals is a lot more popular with audiences today than it was in 1972.
When Marjoe came out in theaters, it benefited Marjoe. And when it came out on DVD, it reached the audience it was always meant to reach. The born again movement had, by 2005, totally mushroomed and was everywhere—including the White House. When we have statistics that four out of ten Americans call themselves born again, that's scary. So that DVD came out at exactly the right moment to have the maximum impact. When it first came out in theaters, it didn't. Evangelicals were still a fringe group then, so an expose on them wasn't as interesting.

We did very little to promote the DVD release. But it immediately got snapped up, and every year it's the same. I know because I get the royalty checks. It just keeps growing. Last year I had two major music groups purchase footage from Marjoe for their music videos—and another one who sampled the Cadillac speech for some rap song. A lot of people have seen it now. I've been floored at how it's entered the fabric. The Museum of Modern Art honored it. The accolades started coming about five years after it's DVD release.

The negative was in such good shape, and for a 16-millimeter blowup, it looks pretty damn good. And now that it's restored and digitized I don't think it will disappear again. If you want to talk about fate, I believe it went underground like it did until the exact, perfect moment for it to surface.

Sarah Kernochan scripted the upcoming film Learning to Drive staring Ben Kingsley, which will hit theaters this spring.

Follow Josiah M. Hesse on Twitter