Shirley Jones landed in the annals of television history for her role as Shirley Partridge in The Partridge Family, which ran from 1970 to 1974. But the project that really changed her career was the film role for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar: Lulu Bains in 1960’s Elmer Gantry.
The movie follows a con man (Burt Lancaster) and a woman evangelist (Jones) who are hawking religion in small-town America. It’s based on the 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first American to do so.
“It changed the course of my career… I would not have had the longevity that I’ve had. As I’ve said, my career was really over as far as movies [before Elmer Gantry],” Jones confessed in a 2005 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “I would not have had the longevity that I’ve had, had it not been for Gantry.”
Shirley Jones Was Shocked by Her Oscar Win
When Jones considered the other contenders at the Academy Awards, she thought there was no way she was coming home with an Oscar. But that didn’t matter to her; she was honored enough by the mere nomination.
“I didn’t think I had a chance, truly,” Jones said of her Oscar win. “I mean, I was excited about the nomination. That in itself was thrilling for me. My first big dramatic film and I get an Oscar nomination? So that was exciting.”
Jones didn’t even write a speech, she was so convinced she wouldn’t win. But her then-husband Jack Cassidy persuaded her to jot a few things down in the cab on the way over to the awards.
Unfortunately, the film’s director, writer and co-producer, Richard Brooks, was unhappy with Jones’s acceptance speech. He felt that she didn’t thank him profusely enough. Especially since he lost out on the Best Director Oscar that year. But after all, it had been Lancaster who had pushed for Jones to get the role in the first place, over the director’s objections, so perhaps she thanked him just the right amount.
Jones Says Her Current Husband Finds Her Acceptance Remarks Telling
Shirley Jones has many fond memories from Elmer Gantry. But what she remembers now about actually winning an Oscar for the film is mostly her comical procession from her seat to the dais to accept the award.
“I was wearing a ball gown, you know, to the Academy Awards. And I had to pick it up and carry it down the aisle,” she recounted, saying she doesn’t know what possessed her to wear that dress.
When she got up there, Jones uttered a sentence that her husband now finds particularly revealing. The actress was decidedly precise in her choice of words.
“My husband, Marty, now really laughs every time – we have the little clip of that, me winning the award, the film clip – and he laughs every time he sees it,” Jones explained. “Because he says, ‘Everybody in the whole world says, ‘This is the happiest moment of my life.’’ And he says, ‘What you said was, ‘This is the happiest moment of my career.’… Certainly that’s you.’”
Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that Elmer Gantry was a career highlight for Jones. And to the extent that she kept working well into her golden years, she probably owes a debt of gratitude to that film, more so even than The Partridge Family.