‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ and Evangelical Camp

The movie captures what made Tammy Faye Messner an unlikely gay icon

Searchlight Pictures/YouTube
Daniel Walden

When people think of camp and Christianity they usually think of the Catholic Church, and I’ll admit that it’s hard to beat the camp appeal of an hour-and-a-half music drama starring a man wearing lace — to say nothing of the drama behind the scenes. Camp emerges more readily from overt pageantry, but American Evangelicalism has a pageantry of its own. In her 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes du Mez explores some of the performances, especially the masculine performances, of Evangelical culture, in which the rugged masculinity of John Wayne came to figure prominently — a stark contrast with the figure of the celibate priest. But the real currency of camp is attention, and if we look closely, we can find ourselves remarking “I never realized John Wayne walked like that.”

That said, we often find camp more readily in supporting figures, or at least in those whom the powers that be would like to keep on the sidelines. In that respect, Tammy Faye Messner — more famous as Tammy Faye Bakker — is nearly an ideal camp subject: a televangelist turned gay rights advocate, with garish makeup permanently tattooed onto her face and several disco singles to her name. Her marriage to convicted fraudster Jim Bakker — who at one point shared a cell with Lyndon LaRouche — and the lingering reputational grime of televangelism make her unlikely gay icon material if you don’t know any gay people over 25.

But the adulation, simultaneously grudging and fervent, was real, and much of it was engendered by a life whose shape echoes those of so many other women with a strong gay fanbase: a talented and charismatic woman who spent much of her career under the thumb of a controlling and increasingly distant man until she finally ditched him. But even the biography wouldn’t be enough without her garish and glorious makeup, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which recently got wide release on HBO Max, is fully aware of this. Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye is an earnest, loquacious, determined woman who makes a number of questionable decisions in the heat of the moment but who commits herself repeatedly to living with and even embracing the consequences of those decisions, whatever they might be. The most central of these are her marriage to Jim Bakker within a year of meeting him and the couple’s decision to leave their Bible college early in order to become traveling evangelists — the latter being a result of the former, as the college did not allow married students.

The camp energy of this film is built with great care out of carefully selected bits of a messy and compromised life.

In the role of Bakker, Andrew Garfield is charming and soft-spoken, the very picture of a nice Christian boy. He also comes off gayer than a church organist’s Christmas brunch, because Andrew Garfield has the remarkable ability to be totally unconvincing in any of his characters’ purported sexuality, whatever their orientation happens to be. The Eyes of Tammy Faye uses this ambiguity to remarkable effect: Tammy Faye sees her husband roughhousing with a male coworker and rumors later circulate about his having sexually harassed and assaulted male employees, though the viewer never sees firm proof of anything. But Garfield’s failed bid at playing straight casts the onscreen couple’s dynamic less as husband and wife than as twentysomething ex-theatre-kid and her closeted best friend, foreshadowing the film’s aim at camp energy.

The camp here is not accidental. The Eyes of Tammy Faye shares its title, its subject, and its attitude with a 2000 documentary film by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato with voice-over narration by RuPaul. The earlier film, made while Messner was still alive, uses soft-focus interviews to construct her as an innocent, big-hearted victim of her husband’s fraud schemes, of his sexual infidelity, and of the Evangelical media sphere more generally. An older Messner — she died in 2007 at age 65 — would go on to embrace the LGBT community and appear at Pride parades with gay celebrities. The documentary clearly meant to capitalize on and expand her status as a gay icon, and the biopic follows suit. Both films fail to ask what role Messner may have had in the fraud that sent her first husband to prison, and although the latter, unlike the former, does not neglect the allegation that Jim Bakker and another preacher drugged and raped a young church secretary named Jessica Hahn and paid her $279,000 of church money to stay silent, it fails to shift its focus even for a moment to any affected party other than Tammy Faye. The camp energy of this film is built with great care out of carefully selected bits of a messy and compromised life.

But construction and artificiality are constitutive of camp and always have been. “Unintentional” camp is misnamed: we sometimes hear it said of, for example, Lauren Bacall’s absolutely incredible commercial for High Point Coffee that some unforeseen alchemical synthesis of sincerity and failed ambition gives the clip a camp energy that elevates it into something transcendent. But Bacall is a professional actor: what is “sincere” here? And what is being attempted and failed? It’s precisely the searching intent of the viewer that finds tragicomic redemption in Bacall’s pronunciation of “lively” in a decaf coffee commercial. We choose to read it in a way that does not so much repair its deficiencies as move beyond the need for reparation.

The self-consciously camp work tries to supply some of this intention. It deliberately invites the audience to elevate the work, to make the aesthetic leap that obviates justification. Good low comedy does this: John Belushi crushing a beer can against his forehead in Animal House and Alex Karras punching out a horse in Blazing Saddles transcend questions of taste or necessity. An abrupt shift in register can also be an invitation to this kind of reading: think of Madeline Kahn’s immortal “flames on the side of my face” in Clue. But poor execution is a poor invitation; it begs an audience to make up for the performance’s deficiencies without giving them material that sustains elevation. Contact with transcendence can be fatal if you aren’t ready: God showed Moses a bush that burned without being consumed, but a bunch of Nazis opened the Ark of the Covenant and got their faces melted off. Destruction is a much more common critical response than canonization for good reason: most works can’t take immortality.

Immortality, however, is Christianity’s stock in trade, if you take Jesus and Paul at their word. It’s not hard, then, to see what attracts producers and viewers who prize camp to Tammy Faye Messner, and indeed to postwar American Evangelicalism more generally. The rise of televangelism seemed to make peace at last between the suburban home-owning American dream and the demands of Christian faith. Televangelists like the Bakkers built the foundations of the Evangelical counterculture in the U.S., which now comprises an entire alternative ecosystem of music production, movies, and even coffee and fast food. The disjunctive moments between earnest praise of God and naked copying of forms and tropes from already outdated secular culture provide ample opportunity to uncover a certain camp desperation: when I see a montage of Tammy Faye in front of a disco ball in the ’80s, I have aesthetic flashbacks to Lucille Ball’s horrendous performance in the 1974 film adaptation of Mame, which I nonetheless treasure equally with Rosalind Russell’s thoroughly superb (and just as camp) performance in Auntie Mame. The same jarring contrast between earnest ambition, substantial resources, and manifest incompetence has made me a far more devoted connoisseur of the God’s Not Dead cinematic universe than of Marvel’s even though I have yet to pay a dime to see one of the movies. The kinds of details that a camp sensibility longs to elevate are, it seems to me, tokens of genuine humanity: they feel transcendent because they shatter our interpersonal complacency and overwhelm us with the genuine oddness of human beings.

And so much in this milieu is very odd. The Bakkers built and operated Heritage USA, a Christian theme park that was for a time the third largest in the country by attendance: only Disney World and Disneyland had more. The spiritual successor to Heritage USA was the recently shuttered Holy Land Experience, which was home to multiple musical dramas of the life of Jesus and the birth of the Christian Church as well the world’s fourth largest collection of rare Biblical manuscripts. There is a whole range of Christian popular music in every major genre, and even Christian diet videos. These are, themselves, all redemptive projects of a sort: they aim to bring the entire scope of secular culture, from quality music and cinema to scammy diet videos, within the reach of Christian consumers. It’s hard to totally dislike people who aim at the sanctification of the entire world, which is probably why Tammy Faye Messner was such an attractive subject. But explaining gay appreciation for Messner, the quirky and self-avowedly clownish divorcée turned gay rights advocate, is easy: she didn’t personally threaten LGBT rights, and she took risks that many supposedly pro-gay politicians who are still in office were unwilling to take at the time. She stands out as exceptional, and she stands out from her context in an inviting and accessible way.

On the other hand, much of the apparatus of American Evangelicalism is overtly hostile to my existence and always has been. Nonetheless, I can’t help but be fond of it, and fond of it with what seems to me to be a characteristically gay form of appreciation. Certainly this isn’t possible for everyone: much of my capacity for this sort of fondness depends on being at a safe distance, and if I had grown up surrounded by this hostility, or if it had hurt me directly, I might bristle at the suggestion that there is anything fun about it. But as it is, I’m confronted much more frequently with the polite and paternalistic homophobia of liberal America than with other forms, and my conservative Evangelical friends are people who, in their own words, might not think I can really get married but would definitely come to the wedding. I do feel safe enough to admit to having some affection for this culture, and I think it has surprisingly little to do with our shared Christianity: I’m a gay Catholic socialist, and my religious and political relationship to American Evangelicalism, and often American Protestantism in general, is characterized mostly by suspicion and contempt — they want me dead, and I want them dragged in front of a People’s Tribunal of Maoist nuns.

My track record on forgiving my enemies is almost nonexistent, so you’d be right to say that I’m pretty bad at being a Christian; I really am much better at being a homosexual. I look at the output of American Evangelicalism searching for the moments of disjunction that can open up to camp, and many of these are moments of hypocrisy: tacky church-owned jets, big-budget movies with wide distribution about Christians being silenced, and basically the entire apparatus of “prosperity theology” are all sites of this. In each case I can’t help but feel connected to these very human people who aspire to so much and whose failure looks so silly. Here camp opens the way to recognition which, although it isn’t quite forgiveness, certainly seems like a pretty good start.

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.