In the view of documentarians Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, fallen '80s televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker -- she of the pink feather boas and the streetwalker mascara -- was the misunderstood victim of right-wing religious zealots, unscrupulous reporters and a corrupt judicial system. Now living "in exile" (also known as Palm Springs), she remains a profoundly spiritual seeker of truth who's weathered all manner of insult, infirmity and humiliation with the patience of Job. Barbato and Bailey also find her a "fabulous mess." Clearly smitten, they turn The Eyes of Tammy Faye into a campy gay valentine in which the former Praise the Lord network star is held up as a pop saint, a heroine of diversity and -- we're not kidding here -- a deep thinker.
Whatever opinions you hold about Tammy Faye or figures straight out of Madame Tussaud's selling Jesus on the boob tube, the moviemakers offer no shred of evidence to support their claim that "there was nothing crooked or fraudulent about PTL." Tammy Faye's first husband, baby-faced PTL founder Jim Bakker, was convicted of fraud and sent to jail for 45 years; her second husband, PTL "contractor" Roe Messner, got out of the slammer in March 1999 after doing a stretch of his own. But Barbato and Bailey aren't investigators; they're fans. No use letting unpleasant facts get in the way of your affection for a self-made martyr.
The film's makers, whose credits include documentaries on Ellen Degeneres and HIV-positive comedian Steve Moore, may decline to address PTL's dubious finances, but Tammy Faye has some bizarre appeal nonetheless. Narrated by New York drag queen RuPaul Charles and stuffed with admiration for its subject's mulish perseverance, this arch and often hilarious documentary reveals what an icon she has become among segments of the gay community: To her credit, she was the first televangelist to embrace gays and HIV sufferers. Unwittingly, it also reveals some absurdities and hypocrisies the filmmakers seem to grasp only in part -- and Tammy Faye not at all. Cozied up on her white satin divan with a pair of miniature poodles, she declares, "I like real!" Well, fine, as long as you define "real" as six ounces of eye shadow, lots of baby talk and a capacity for bursting into tears every time someone looks at you cross-eyed. The forty-odd record albums our heroine recorded in her TV heydey, singing out of tune on every cut, must also have seemed pretty real at the time: Bedazzled fans shelled out $25 a copy.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
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At its peak, PTL had millions of viewers, the 2,500-acre Heritage USA theme park and a bank account that would shame most smaller countries. But by the mid-'80s, the end was near. Husband Jim was caught in the tawdry Jessica Hahn affair, the Charlotte Observer started poking around, and the PTL empire, long dedicated to "the Gospel of Fun," began to crumble. Through no fault of the management, the movie says. Enter Jerry Falwell, public moralist and enthusiastic gay-basher. It was Falwell, Barbato and Bailey say, who snaked PTL away from the simon-pure Bakkers, effectively ending Tammy Faye's nice little run at fame and fortune. Regarding the depth of the scandal, she reports, "O.J. Simpson was nothing compared to what we had around us." It's not chagrin that fills her voice, but rather an eerie kind of pride. For the dedicated self-promoter, any kind of notoriety is better than none at all.
Since kicking an addiction to painkillers (her current jones is Diet Coke), beating colon cancer, reconciling with a rebellious daughter and getting remarried, Tammy Faye says she's still a simple country girl at heart but has, in recent years, discovered her true self. To wit: "I'm a very secular person." Wow. Who would've guessed it? Near the end of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, we catch her pitching talk-show ideas in the L.A. office of a cable-TV president. Each idea is lamer than the last. The young executive gives Tammy Faye a courtesy-has-its-limit look, and she blurts, "Well, what do you see me doing?"
The answer, of course, is zilch. In the huge gap between Tammy Faye's blundering self-delusion and the heroism the moviemakers are intent on portraying, there's a good deal of unintentional comedy -- and just the slightest hint of tragedy. Obviously deluded but likable, she comes off as another dazzled striver hungering after celebrity on a minimum of talent. Today she's a Sunday church organist, a wife and mother and a campy gay icon. In other words, Tammy Faye has a few things going for her "in exile," even if her TV career appears to be over. Most important, she's a survivor. Jim J. Bullock, her co-host on a short-lived talk show she landed in the early '90s, says it all: "After a nuclear holocaust, there will be only cockroaches -- and Tammy Faye."