Burt Lancaster won his Oscar from his second nomination for portraying the titular role in Elmer Gantry.
Lancaster has quite the challenge in this role, because the film, I believe, never portrays Gantry as either a good or a bad man entirely. Instead it more of simply portrays him, requiring what the audience thinks of him mostly to Lancaster himself. Lancaster as Gantry takes his wild man Lancaster approach rather than his straight man Lancaster approach, which works quite well for Elmer Gantry. Gantry begins in the film as a complete rapscallion to say the least, a womanizing drinker, moving from town to town. Gantry wild man energetic performance works quite well for the fast moving Gantry, and he perfectly shows the unstable nature of Elmer. He shows the right amount of sheer fun in his performance that of course works as well as possibly for the joy seeking Gantry.
Gantry goes and joins up with a Evangelical religious group in an apparent lust after their leader Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons, who should have been nominated). Now what I do find fascinating is the film says very little about Gantry motives early on in these moments, but Lancaster is completely able to fully show without words what is going on in Elmer's head. To get deeper in, and closer to Sharon, Gantry starts preaching as well right alongside here, bringing the fire and brimstone to the sermons. All of the sermon scenes really are incredible moments for Lancaster as Gantry. He is simply incredible and believable in his forceful preachings. Lancaster is terrific because he completely throws himself into the sermons both mentally, and physically. Each sermon by themselves are masterful moments by Lancaster.
The validity and truthfulness of Gantry and his organization is quickly questioned though, and he must defeat a critical journalist. Lancaster is terrific in this scene, as he slowly picks apart the writer, to bring him to Gantry's point. Lancaster makes Gantry ability to completely manipulate and control every problem that comes his way is completely convincing due to Lancaster quick concise manner. What is most outstanding about Lancaster's performance though is his portrayal of the change or lack of change in Elmer Gantry. I would say he most definetly changes through how much is left a little to interpretation, which is so great about Lancaster's performance. He mostly internalizes this change through his performance, showing subtle changes throughout the film, which is truly incredible. Lancaster creates the perfect portrait of Elmer Gantry, of both earnestness, and sarcasm, and the way they interweave, and over take one another. Overall Lancaster's performance is simply great, and frankly his preaching scenes alone made his Oscar deserved.