A Star Is Reborn

The Eyes of Tammy Faye resurrects a divinely inspired performer

With a nod to garish old actresses and epic emotional torture, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's new documentary impishly asks, "Whatever happened to Tammy Faye?" That is, the former Tammy Faye Bakker: former wife of Jim, the former head of the formerly huge Christian televangelist satellite network PTL.

Who cares? you might well say. Didn't Tammy and Jim get their deserved comeuppance--divorce and exile for her, sexual humiliation and jail time for him--after fleecing their flock for millions? The unapologetically supportive The Eyes of Tammy Faye argues otherwise; and while Tammy's side of the story can't prove PTL's innocence, it does provide convincing evidence of this natural-born performer's disarming charm and credibility in front of the camera.

Advancing from Tammy's childhood in northern Minnesota to her retreat in a Palm Desert, California, gated community, the movie spins a larger tale, too: a story about the pleasure with which Americans consume "self-made" heroes, destroy them, and then graciously resurrect them with applause. The question of how much Bailey and Barbato (let alone their subject) understand their participation in that myth-making goes unexplored. (Cheerfully clichéd chapter titles such as "A Star Is Born" hint at a campy insouciance.) But by the end, this viewer felt both engaged and implicated, even as I wondered who was zooming who.

According to the film, Tammy Faye was raised, the eldest of eight children, by working-class parents in International Falls. They worshiped at an Assemblies of God church, where, Tammy says, they were taught to see the Heavenly Father as a vengeful, threatening ogre. At Bible college in 1960, she met and married Jim Bakker, and the two began a traveling ministry. Together they came up with the idea of sharing a more joyful Christian Word through puppetry: Jim the straight man, Tammy operating with mildly anarchic glee.

Their act attracted TV preacher Pat Robertson, who signed them to his station--and soon their two slots, The Jim and Tammy Show and a Jim-led talk show called The 700 Club, became the fledgling Christian Broadcast Network's most popular programs. As CBN grew, Robertson decided to take over The 700 Club. A similar force-out occurred within the Trinity Broadcast Network, which the Bakkers had started with California friends. The young couple next organized their own network, PTL, and success was finally theirs to keep. For a while.

Owning one of the four network satellites then in existence, PTL had a vast influence--and 24 hours to fill. The Bakkers put themselves--and their two children--in the spotlight. Their lives were transformed into performance: filmed family rituals, emotions customarily sung to the back row, Tammy's stage paint made permanent (lips, eyes, and eyebrows lined, those infamous raccoon lashes continuously replaced). Some of The Eyes of Tammy Faye's strongest moments arrive in the interviews with the Bakker children. The daughter, who ran away as a teen (she went goth, it appears), tends to downplay her feelings--an unsurprising response to her mother's dramatics.

Tammy, of course, is a master button-pusher--so good she makes manipulation look like candor. And perhaps it is. The filmmakers reserve judgment, with a couple of good-natured exceptions. (Tammy, tearfully remembering her involuntary admission to the Betty Ford Clinic after a pill overdose: "I thought I was being punished....It still hurts me that they did not tell me they were going to do that to me." Her doctor, smiling: "She spent one night there.") Indeed, Bailey and Barbato play handmaids to Tammy's hapless tale of betrayal and abandonment (it's so sad!); they mock anyone--from Christian fundamentalist to Hollywood producer--who dares not appreciate her innocent, open-hearted generosity, and forgive (or find fabulous) her flamboyant extravagance. The one time an interviewee--a journalist--dares to find Tammy manipulative, he's left looking laughably smug. (Silly boy!)

So maybe it's not manipulative to extract $15 million from your viewers so you can build an amusement park--Heritage U.S.A.--that they'll have to pay to enter. And maybe Heritage was Jim's hubris alone at work, with Tammy content to act as diamond-ringed avenging angel for all those outsiders (gays, addicts, the impotent) disdained by other evangelists. Jim and Tammy, says one sympathetic witness, didn't live any higher on the hog than their peers. They didn't deserve, says the movie, the descending wrath of Jerry Falwell, who took over PTL and efficiently slandered the Bakkers into retreat. Hell, no one deserves Jerry Falwell. It's beautiful that Tammy has forgiven him, even if The Eyes of Tammy Faye has assuredly not.

With surging choral music and semiserious sincerity, Bailey and Barbato create an enjoyably biblical battle between PTL's celebrative inclusiveness and the Moral Majority's judgmental avarice. But the truth is probably messier, and I suspect the producer-directors know that. Why else would they tack on, like an embarrassed afterthought, a little Tammy warble confessing that she has learned "family is more important than things"? Ah, the last reservation falls: Applaud the repentant prodigal daughter, coming home to that hypocritical American myth! But I believed her more--as did the filmmakers--when she declared: "Without my eyelashes, I wouldn't be Tammy Faye. I don't know who I'd be, but I wouldn't be me."

 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

 
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