There’s an adage in Hollywood that the best Oscar bait for a woman is playing a whore. It worked when Helen Hayes committed “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” in 1931, and dozens of actresses since have risen in esteem by being “fallen” on screen.
That includes Shirley Jones, who makes a special appearance at the Castro Theatre on Wednesday.
The occasion is a promotion for the upcoming Classic Film Festival being hosted in Hollywood starting April 28 by Turner Classic Movies. The free event includes Jones in an onstage interview, followed by a screening of “Elmer Gantry,” the 1960 film that brought her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Jones is one of many stars helping TCM celebrate films from the 1920s through the ’80s.
“It’s a little odd,” she says of holding a festival for films easily available on television or a rental queue, “but it’s understandable. I have to say those are the films I love the most … for obvious reasons.”
Taking the small but pivotal “Gantry” role opposite Burt Lancaster was a major milestone in her career. To that end, Jones had been the classic Broadway and Hollywood ingénue. Under personal contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein, she toured their shows and committed “Oklahoma!” and ‘Carousel” to film history.
That typecasting prevented many, including director Richard Brooks, from seeing her as capable of anything else.
“Burt was co-producing the film with Richard. He had seen a ‘Playhouse 90’ television program where I played an alcoholic opposite Red Buttons and he wanted me for ‘Gantry’ because of it,” Jones says.
Jones read the book by Sinclair Lewis about a con man and a female evangelist, not unlike Aimee Semple McPherson, and “was thrilled” with the character of Lulu Baines, the former girlfriend turned prostitute who brings about Gantry’s downfall.
“Richard Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie,” Jones says. “She was a wonderful actress and had done roles like that, which I certainly hadn’t, so I understood why he felt the way he did. For some reason, though, Burt stuck up for me.”
Her first day on the set was the critical scene in the brothel where Lulu unmasks Gantry, and Brooks did not give her any direction on how to play it.
“He was getting ready to say, ‘Bye-bye, Shirley! I’ll prove you can’t do it,’” Jones says. “I came home in tears thinking it was over for me. He called me the next day and said he owed me an apology. He said, ‘Not only will you be great in this film, but I predict you’ll win an Academy Award.’”
IF YOU GO
With special guest Shirley Jones
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: Free (first come, first served)