The Academy loves to honor actresses who are cast against type. It was shown again when normally saint-like Shirley Jones won the Oscar for playing a ‘five-buck hooker’ in Elmer Gantry.
Shirley plays the kind of supporting role that is actually rather small but of great importance to the structure of the movie. The appearance of her character dramatically changes the direction of the story and the lives of the main characters – Lulu Bains is the turning point of Elmer Gantry.
Elmer Gantry is going on for over an hour before Shirley Jones’s character enters for the first time. Until this moment, Elmer Gantry was able to join the wandering church of Sister Sharon and became a religious phenomenon. But while he is telling the country about God, Lulu Bains knows all about his past and his sinful life – also with her. The audience first sees her in her most famous scene when she just sits in her chair and looks at her stockings. When one of her fellow hookers asks about Gantry ‘Can he save anybody?’, Lulu gives her characteristic hysteric laugh and says ‘Can he? Anywhere, anytime. In a tent, standing up, lying down or any other way. And he’s got plenty of ways!’ Shirley Jones is so full of energy in this part that you are afraid she might bust at any moment. Her believable devil-may-care-attitude, her wonderful voice which always expresses her inner feelings so well and her little smile craft a very memorable character that is up to all the things the script asks from her. And who can forget her famous ‘And then he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps!’
Shirley Jones’s whole performance is based on her chemistry with Burt Lancaster and her believability in a tricky role – and she succeeds in both. Lulu Bains is a character that changes very important characteristics in only a few moments and is constantly working on her own agenda and Shirley Jones was able to capture this while never losing the lightness of her own personality. Another great moment for her is the scene when she is meeting Elmer again – he is full of panic about this woman which could destroy his life while Lulu, again, gives her hysteric laugh.
The most challenging scene comes when she and Elmer are meeting in her apartment. Here, Shirley Jones shows a very impressive range of emotions. First, she wants to trick Elmer into kissing her to blackmail him later but then, all of a sudden, she discovers that she still has honest feelings for this man who treated her so miserably years ago. But when she finds out that he is already in love with another woman, she again finds her hate for him and goes through with her plan. It’s a key moment in the characterization of Lulu which could have gone horribly wrong but Shirley Jones made it all believable.
It’s a great, scene-stealing performance that provides the best moments of the movie.