Seeing the World Through ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’
This review first appeared July 28, 2000, when the film was in a limited theatrical release.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” not only gives us the skinny on the most celebrated eyelashes of our time (they’re permanent, albeit augmented by generous dollops of L’Oreal mascara), it very much sees the world through the eyes of that particular beholder.
It may seem odd to treat the former Tammy Faye Bakker, the erstwhile first lady of Christian broadcasting, with the kind of empathetic reverence usually reserved for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, but having celebrated drag star RuPaul Charles and not Walter Cronkite as your narrator is a tip-off that this is not a “just the facts, ma’am” type of documentary.
Half serious, half campy, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” takes an amusingly sob sister approach to the woman who, along with former husband Jim Bakker, helped found no less than three televangelism networks as well as Heritage USA, at one time this country’s most popular theme park if those with Disney in their name were bumped from the list.
Taking Tammy Faye at face value, so to speak, does mean that filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato display a weakness for overwrought voice-over lines such as “Twelve long years after her fall from grace, Tammy Faye lives in virtual exile in Palm Desert, Calif.,” and “She returned to the desert, alone with her dolls, her dogs and her faith.”
But if the film’s devotion to its subject means that its analysis of the factors that led to the demise of the Bakkers’ PTL (for Praise the Lord) network shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, that doesn’t mean that their film can’t be thoroughly enjoyed as a privileged look at one of the loopiest of late 20th century lives. “She’s a survivor,” explains Jim J. Bullock, who once co-hosted a TV show with her. “After the holocaust, there will be roaches, Tammy Faye and Cher.”
A naturally theatrical personality quite comfortable living her private life in public, the remarried Tammy Faye Messner is always close to emotion and tears. Adroit at using her vulnerability as a strength and a shield, Tammy Faye may not be quite as guileless as the film makes her out, but anyone who can read a poem beginning “Loneliness clings to me like a second skin” and follow it with the comment, “It’s a little dramatic, I guess,” is a heck of a lot of fun to be around.
Born Tammy Faye LaValley in International Falls, Minn., the eldest child of a sternly religious household, this outgoing young woman met Jim Bakker at Minneapolis’ North Central Bible College when she was 17 and married him at 19. Soon they were involved in the fledgling field of televangelism, but, though successful, they could not find a home.
Their children’s show with hand puppets Susie Muppet and Allie Alligator helped launch Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, but the Bakkers left after Robertson took over “The 700 Club” talk show that Jim had started. Internecine battles forced them out of their next start-up, Trinity Broadcasting, but they hit pay dirt with PTL, one of the first four satellite networks in the world, with Jim dramatically promising to broadcast “24 hours a day until the second coming of Christ.”
While “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is more interesting in exploring Tammy Faye’s openness, including her early embracing of AIDS patients, than wondering if the huge sums televangelism raises might not be the greatest thing in the world, it does gleefully explore the very public problems Jim and Tammy Faye had to deal with. First came his liaison with Jessica Hahn, followed by her addiction to painkillers that ended with an accidental overdose and a stay in the Betty Ford Clinic.
Painted as the Judas behind the Bakkers’ ultimate demise is the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, who, the film asserts, posed as the PTL’s savior while secretly scheming to take over the ministry and then destroy it. While Tammy Faye is obviously sincere in these beliefs, that doesn’t ensure their complete accuracy, and having divergent points of view wouldn’t have hurt.
But filmmakers Bailey and Barbato are clearly not concerned with making anything like a conventional documentary, and while their adventurousness doesn’t always work (breaking the film into sections and using hand puppets to read the titles aloud comes off as way too cutesy), it succeeds more often than not. Of course, having a subject who is not only willing to say, “You cannot go forward looking into the rear-view mirror of life,” but actually believes it, doesn’t hurt one little bit.
* “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” can be seen tonight at 8:30 on Cinemax. The network has rated it TV-14-LD (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with special advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue).