Our current Movie of the Month, the behind-the-scenes Christian evangelist exposé Marjoe, is one of the more captivating specimens of the “Direct Cinema” movement of the 1970s. It recalls both a politically subversive, Maysles Brothers-style documentary and a subversive take on the concert film, gawking at the stage performances of a lapsed Christian preacher who doesn’t believe his own sermons but needs to keep the show on the road to in order to pay the bills. Since both the movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself: a bizarre, charismatic creature who was trained (read: tortured) from a young age to be a kind of sideshow performer in the name of the Lord. As a result, recommending further viewing for Marjoe fans must take into account Gortner’s idiosyncratic characteristics as a screen presence more so than the circumstances of the film itself.
It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary Marjoe would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. At the time, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. It may have taken home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but if you lived anywhere south of De Moines, Iowa, chances are you never got a chance to see it until it hit home video decades later. Because of the film’s uniquely 1970s politics and the distinct peculiarities of Marjoe Gortner himself, it’s difficult to recommend many films that entirely overlap with its subject or mood. Unfortunately, though, Gortner is not the only sideshow attraction preacher out there with a morbid life story to tell.
Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its eccentric, politically subversive wavelength.
Jesus Camp (2006)
One of the most electrifying sequences in Marjoe is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the hippie documentary crew on how to act while socializing among Evangelicals, as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. This unspoken culture war between documentarian & subject immediately reminded me of the 2006 doc Jesus Camp, which chilled me to my core when I first saw it in college. Jesus Camp is careful not to tip its hand in revealing its political POV, at least not as overtly as in Marjoe‘s hotel room debriefing. Instead, it allows the Christian Evangelists it documents to define the battle lines as they see it. In their own words, the Evangelists claim they are engaged in a genuine Culture War with secularists, declaring “We want to reclaim America for Christ.” For once, it’s not the countercultural hippie artists who are being honest about the moral combat perpetrated by well-funded Christians with a pathological persecution complex; the fascists just openly, proudly admit what they’re up to.
Much of what makes Marjoe Gortner such a fascinating subject is that he was profoundly fucked up by an abusive childhood that trained him to be a sideshow Child Preacher in order to fatten his parents’ pockets. By the time the documentary catches up with him, however, those abuses are in the distant past, represented only by a few scratchy audio recordings & still photographs. Jesus Camp documents Evangelist indoctrination of young children in real time. Threatened with eternal damnation in torturous Hellfire if they don’t speak in tongues or if they dare enjoy secular pop music (or any other minor indulgence that doesn’t directly honor God), the children of Jesus Camp are deliberately warped by the adults around who run their Christian-themed summer camp (most notably head camp pastor Becky Fischer, the most infuriating villain in the history of cinema). The adults proudly boast that they’re indoctrinating the kids to become “prayer warriors” to fight in an ideological army for George W. Bush & the Republican Party – the exact kind of militarized Christian voter devotion that now keeps Trump in office all these years later, despite him being the least Christian man alive. The children are scared out of their little minds and just follow along as best as they can, lest they burn in Hell forever for minor infractions against God’s Will.
The icing on the cake in this pairing is that one of the central subjects that arises in Jesus Camp is a child preacher who uses his youth as a gimmick to draw attention to his sermons. Seeing how that schtick worked out for Gortner in the long run, I sincerely hope that kid got out okay after the cameras stopped rolling.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
Not all Evangelists are as villainous as Jesus Camp‘s Becky Fischer. If Marjoe Gortner’s any proof, they can even be weirdly lovable (even if still mildly terrifying). Case in point: Tammy Faye Bakker, former televangelist and unlikely queer icon (thanks to her public embrace of gay men during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s & 90s). From her trademark spackled eye makeup to her Evangelist puppet shows to her former Christian water park empire, Tammy Faye Bakker is a kind of nightmarishly unreal public figure, but she’s also unexpectedly sweet & adorable once you get past her eccentric surface. Her own documentary is not as prestigious or artfully crafted as Marjoe Gortner’s, but it may function as better PR, as it allows her to charm the audience for as long as she feels like chattering.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a shamelessly trashy documentary that allows Tammy Faye Bakker to tell her rise-to-televangelist-fame story in her own words, while also openly having campy fun with the details. Made by the same production company that has since sunk all its efforts into the RuPaul’s Drag Race empire, World of Wonder, the film has a deliberately cheap, made-for-TV tone. It effectively feels like a spoof of sensationalist true-crime reporting on 90s television, right down to RuPaul living his full Behind the Music fantasy as the narrator. The movie catches Faye after the most incredible chapters of her life have closed (as opposed to Marjoe, which documents Gortner while he’s still active on the Evangelist circuit), but her bubbly, bizarro personality and her history as one of the very first televangelist celebrities more than makes up for its timing. She even offers a universally detestable villain for the audience to hiss at while describing the figures behind her professional downfall: Jerry Fucking Falwell, the devil himself.
The WOW boys have almost too much fun while playing up Tammy’s inescapable camp value. They even use her vintage puppet characters to announce the chapter titles between her rambling anecdotes. Not every documentary has to be as politically fired-up as Marjoe or Jesus Camp to be worthwhile, however, and at least this one’s puppet show goofballery appears to have been the inspiration for Drag Race‘s beloved puppet challenge (Tammy Faye offhandedly uses the phrase “Everybody loves puppets” in a scene where she’s pitching TV shows to a bewildered producer who doesn’t know what to do with her).
While Tammy Faye is oddly charismatic in a similar way, there’s no substitute for Marjoe Gortner himself. I was delighted to discover after watching his own documentary that Gortner was able to leverage the film’s notoriety into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s. His hammy, off-kilter charisma is perfect for cheap-o genre filmmaking, which are always benefited by eccentric oddballs who audiences would never see in better-funded, better-regulated productions. Besides, it’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where Gortner’s acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store. We were so close to making that happen!
The jewel of Gortner’s B-movie repertoire seems to be the Roger Corman production Starcrash, a shameless Italian knockoff of Star Wars. Even among other eccentric personalities (and legitimate actors) like David Hasselhoff, Christopher Plummer, and Caroline Munro, Gortner stands out as a captivating oddity. There are space aliens, metallic giantesses, and retro-futuristic bikini babes all over the picture, but it’s Gortner’s Orphan Annie curls and weirdo charisma that always draws the eye whenever he’s onscreen. The movie makes as much use of his weirdo charisma as it can, casting him as a telepathic, superpowered space alien with a laser sword (not to be confused with a lightsaber). Even the booming voice that overdubs his dialogue only accentuates his unconventional screen presence. It reminded me of when Muppets in Space explained Gonzo’s origins as a space alien who crash landed to Earth; it’s the first time his presence on this planet really made sense.
While it can be a little boring in patches, Starcrash is mostly fun, delirious late-night trash. It has no original ideas or clear sense of purpose (there’s a Millennium Falcon on its official poster), but goddamn if it isn’t beautiful. It’s so cheaply, gaudily lit & costumed that it stumbles into some genuine psychedelia that any cheap-o space adventure movie should envy. Gortner’s presence only enhances that entertainment value, which I believe would be true even without knowing the backstory of his Evangelist past. Something about seeing him in space just feels right; I wish he could have travelled there more often.