Aimee Semple McPherson
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Aimee Semple McPherson was arguably America's best–known preacher. For seasons at a time, hardly a week went by when this glamorous, West Coast Pentecostal, often referred to simply as "Sister," did not make the front page of national papers.
McPherson preached an old–time gospel message, but two decidedly modern qualities riveted the jazz–age public, churched or not. The first was her use of media techniques. She was the first woman to own and operate a radio station in America, and her services took their cue from both the film industry and the Salvation Army, using every trick of music and pageantry to draw crowds and save souls.
The second quality was her Hollywood knack for scandal and rumor.
All of this makes McPherson a natural subject for a film treatment. Not surprisingly, her life has hit the screen before. The 1974 TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee was a Faye Dunaway/Bette Davis romp that never penetrated beyond her life's most sensational aspects. Auteur Richard Rossi's new direct–to–video film, Aimee Semple McPherson, goes much deeper.
Rossi, who wrote and directed the 2001 Motion Picture Council Best Documentary winner Saving Sister Aimee, uses McPherson's psyche as his palette. The movie opens with Aimee's notorious disappearance in 1926 during a swim off a California beach. It then traces her life from her teen years of doubt, conversion, and calling, to her eventual death under suspicious circumstances.
Throughout, Rossi probes the loneliness of this charismatic (in all senses) figure, etching her struggles with herself, her God, and those around her. In scenes so tightly shot as nearly to induce claustrophobia, Rossi depicts McPherson's relationships—and unfolds a tale of an emotional tug–of–war between spiritual and physical love.
Rossi's Aimee is a driven woman, always working for her Lord. But though she feels Jesus is genuinely close to her, she cannot physically feel his arms around her. This, in Rossi's vision, leaves Aimee vulnerable and needy. After her 1926 beach disappearance, McPherson reappeared and claimed she had been kidnapped. But Rossi makes credible the public's suspicion that, lonely and between husbands, she concocted this story to cover for a tryst with Kenneth Ormiston, who had built and still operated her radio station at Angelus Temple.
This is not a documentary, but a novelization. But like most fictional treatments of historical figures, this one veers into psychohistory, which often also reflects the psyche of the writer/director.
Clearly, Rossi himself has been wrestling with Pentecostalism's emotional culture, the pressures of prominent Christian leadership, and the price of innovative Christian use of media. In 1992 he created a riveting film documenting faith healings and exorcisms. In the 1990s he wrote and performed Christian rock songs in secular nightclubs and released two albums. In 1998 he wrote, produced, and starred in a stage remake of the classic portrayal of Pentecostal charlatanry, Elmer Gantry.