Movie review: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

Sept. 8, 2000, Austin American-Statesman

In Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s beguiling and respectful documentary, it’s not the eyes of Tammy Faye that strike you; it’s the “I” of Tammy Faye.

Sometimes, it’s the why.

The former Tammy Faye Bakker — “the first lady of religious broadcasting,” RuPaul intones in his dignified narration — is now Tammy Faye Messner, thank you. But Tammy Faye remains very much her own person. No need for a trailing surname for this walking, weeping exclamation point of a Christian diva. The third designation is mere clutter; it trips the euphony of that perky pair of names — Tammy Faye! — which strike a sugary note, like “taffy” and “happy.” And “daffy.”

Both the I and the why come into compelling play in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” as the filmmakers make a swift but satisfying sweep of her living soap opera, rooting out soft answers (she just is) to hard questions (why is she so…Tammy?).

But if it knowingly coddles its subject, the movie doesn’t stint on cold facts. Its sobriety is filtered through the adoring scrim of camp. The movie wants to be as fun as it is informative — luxuriating in the cheese while telling a true story of ruptured pieties — and there it succeeds.

“Eyes'” most indulgent moments supply spurts of comic relief. When RuPaul poses the question, “What ever happened to Tammy Faye?” — an allusion to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” in which Bette Davis scowls through a fright-mask of cosmetic overkill — and when sock puppets coo chapter titles, we are being winked at and accorded permission to giggle.

Permission, frankly, is not necessary. The high drama of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s rise and fall is mottled with so many ironies and eye-popping instances of bad taste that laughing is the only reasonable response. (To despair for the Bakkers depicted here would be a reflex of compunction, not logic.) Make no mistake: The filmmakers included the scene of our heroine lip-synching Christ’s praises, in the desert, atop a camel, for a chuckle.

Tammy Faye is shown doing many things that would kill any normal self-conscious person with mortification. But she deflects ridicule with chirpy obliviousness. In this way, she’s a smart cookie. She comes across as a sport, a beaming and forthcoming survivor who takes refuge in the belief that she’s more brie than Velveeta.

She takes her vanity in stride. She looks like a down-stuffed teddy bear — an Ewok painted by Fellini — and her moppet voice is high and gummy. She’s the first to tell you her notorious fake eyelashes, those starry splats, are inseparable from who she is. She strokes fussy lap dogs during interviews and radiates an airbrushed glow.

But below the sunshine lies a mountain of tumult. The trajectory of the Bakkers’ religious empire, the PTL (Praise the Lord) satellite network, fascinates as it stuns. We watch Jim and Tammy Faye ascend from corny puppeteers on a hit kid s’ show to whipping up 20 million followers, who dutifully send checks to keep shows like “The PTL Club” alive. The opening of Heritage USA, a Christian Disney World that proves a sinkhole, prompts desperate pleas for more money.

For all their mishaps, however, the movie shows the Bakkers as important televangelical trailblazers. They nurtured a mom ‘n’ pop show into the Microsoft of Christian hucksterism. With variety acts and living room banter, the PTL infused “fun and laughter into Christianity,” says Tammy Faye.

It was religion with showbiz zing. But showbiz has a way of eating its own, and the Bakkers were swallowed whole. The higher they went, the farther from heaven they got.

Tammy Faye winds up in the Betty Ford Center for an addiction to painkillers. Jim philanders with a young PTL employee named Jessica Hahn. They lose PTL. Jim is imprisoned for fraud. They divorce. Tammy Faye fights cancer and public exile. She marries a church contractor named Roe Messner. He also lands in jail for fraud.

Somewhere down the line God changed his number and stopped returning their calls.

Perhaps too blithe for her own good, Tammy Faye is a victim of bad choices and chronic myopia. Even as she wets herself in another cloudburst of tears, it’s hard to summon sympathy for a woman who celebrates superficiality so avidly.

The film’s steady optimism discourages derision. Tammy Faye bears her cross with a tear-stained smile, emerging a plucky survivor, makeup unsmudged. She might be misguided, but in the end you leave kind of liking this garish dynamo.

“After the Apocalypse, there will be roaches, Tammy and Cher,” says a friend of hers, and not for a second do you doubt it.

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