Burt Lancaster: J.J. Hunsecker vs. Elmer Gantry

Burt Lancaster

One actor. Two film roles. You tell us which portrayal was the best. The most memorable. Or iconic. Or simply your favorite.

But before you pass judgment, a few words defending the “character” of each…

The case for J.J. Hunsecker

Preview audiences hated The Sweet Smell of Success. It was a box office disaster. Folks back then weren’t ready to confront the corruption, the bitterness, and the scheming that went with showbiz. They couldn’t handle affable Tony Curtis and matinee idol Lancaster as sleazy megalomaniacs. And Lancaster, himself, wasn’t fond of the end result either, threating to beat up screenwriter Ernest Lehman! That was then. Today, critics hold Sweet Smell with utmost esteem and Lancaster’s performance is similarly raved about—with acrid-tongued J.J. Hunsecker making AFI’s list of top movie villains of all time.

The case for Elmer Gantry

Neither were people thrilled about having religion mocked. No studio wanted to finance a movie with such touchy themes. And the Hays Code left producers scrambling to make Sinclair Lewis’ book filmable. Despite all this resistance Lancaster would personally see to it that it got made. His perseverance was validated when Elmer Gantry was nominated for Best Picture. It won for Best Screenplay, Shirley Jones took home a golden statuette for Best Supporting Actress, and he won his one and only Oscar that year as Best Actor for the titular role. Said a self-depreciating Lancaster: “Some parts you fall into like an old glove. Elmer really wasn’t acting. It was me.”


Now that you’ve heard the arguments for both it’s time to render your verdict!