The Eyes of Tammy Faye

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    The Eyes of Tammy Faye Directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey One thing you can say about Tammy Faye Bakker: she's figured out who she is, and she's sticking with it. In the past 15 years, a lot has happened to the Minnesota-born evangelist, who's the subject of the new documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She's lost her empire and her prominence, overcome an addiction to tranquilizers and become kind of an unofficial adoptee of the irony-savvy gay community. But in interviews for the movie, she still seems like the Tammy Faye we became familiar with through tv clips and scandalous news stories: the diminutive, chirpy-voiced optimist with more eye makeup than a clown in a John Wayne Gacy painting. It wasn't an American tragedy, exactly, but what happened to the couple seems, in retrospect, too tawdry and painful to qualify as farce. Comedians and left-wing moralists seized on the disintegration of the Bakkers' PTL empire as fodder for jokes and antihypocrite screeds. The Eyes of Tammy Faye, codirected by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey and narrated by RuPaul, arrives on local screens after a torrent of advance praise for its nuanced and thorough account of the rise and fall of the Bakkers. It's not a great documentary, and it's not always as fair as it could be. Some of the filmmakers' stylistic flourishes veer perilously close to gay cabaret camp?the half-affectionate, half-condescending, not-nearly-as-outrageous-as-it-thinks variety. Scored with cheeseball Christian pop and mock-momentous chorales, the movie is broken up into chapters, the titles of which are spoken aloud by sock puppets with high, cloying voices. The device recalls Todd Haynes' little-seen Karen Carpenter biography Superstar, which was told entirely with dolls, or perhaps the twittering mice in the Babe movies. But while it's sort of amusing and rooted in the Bakkers' own broadcasting origins as Christian puppeteers, it's cutesy, and it exposes the directors to charges that they're only marginally more sympathetic to their subjects than the big-city media that treated them so brutally. The movie hints that the Bakkers were the target of a loosely organized conspiracy by their own people, fundamentalist Christians, who supposedly decided that the Bakkers' inclusive ministry?which made room for HIV-sufferers and gays?was a threat to their hegemony. But the assertion is never convincingly proved; from here, it looks like the Bakkers fell out of the boat sometime around when Jim went through the Hahn scandal, and were devoured by an unending variety of sharks, some Christian, some not.

    The filmmakers are on firmer footing when they tell the story in straightforward newsmagazine style?tv news clips, headlines, talking-head interviews and so forth. What emerges is an alternately bizarre, sad and instructive account of the secularization of Christian preaching in the age of television: big ratings and big money came into a profession that used to be practiced in tent shows and on local and regional radio stations, and with success came the ultimately destructive forces of greed, temptation and power gamesmanship. To those unfamiliar with the peppy enthusiasm of Middle American fundamentalists (being from North Texas, I couldn't get away from them if I wanted to) Jim and Tammy Faye and company seemed grotesque, laughable and, toward the end, pathetic. The most notable achievement of The Eyes of Tammy Faye is how it explains the Bakkers' zigzagging career path in terms of the media and business?hirings, firings, mergers, acquisitions. Christian broadcasters may be closer to the Lord than their hard-driving secular counterparts, but they're no less ruthless. The Bakkers founded a lot of the major Christian-corporate-media entities that nonfundamentalists have heard of, including The 700 Club, which the Bakkers created for an ambitious young Christian broadcaster named Pat Robertson. Robertson took the show over and made it the centerpiece of his own Christian Broadcasting Network and his subsequent political ambitions. Later, the couple joined forces with Christian broadcasters Jan and Paul Crouch to found TBN, a Christian network, and were forced out in a nasty boardroom squabble. Everywhere this couple went, they made things happen; everywhere they went, smoother political operators followed.

    As the filmmakers accumulate details of the Bakkers' goofy, Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland-for-Jesus schemes, a realization forms: the people who survived the Christian broadcasting scandals of the 80s and early 90s were psychologically more in tune with network executives, studio heads and the power brokers of political parties; Jim and Tammy Faye?and Jerry Falwell, for that matter?were probably temperamentally closer to actors or politicians. They loved the thrill of performing, of wringing applause and sobs from viewers, of being adored and followed; they were missionaries for Jesus and whores for applause. They conducted their lives like entertainers, not businesspeople: impulsively, flashily. Only entertainers would think to start an enterprise like the Bakkers' Heritage USA, a Christian theme park that, at the height of its renown in the late 80s, drew nearly as many visitors per year as Disneyland. As innate exhibitionists?check out Tammy Faye's copious tears in this movie, unsquelched by years of watching herself cruelly caricatured on Saturday Night Live?the Bakkers were ill-suited to keeping the power they'd worked so hard to acquire. When the walls came crumbling down around them, the sharper, more controlled Christian broadcasting figures rode in to sell the scrap. Barbato and Bailey's portrait of Jerry Falwell is particularly chilling; they claim that when the Charlotte Observer began working to expose Jim Bakker's financial improprieties and his extramarital affair, Falwell stepped in as an adviser to help them through the bad times, then pushed them toward the door, dismantled their empire and sold it piecemeal. (Falwell's scheme yielded little of lasting financial value, but then, actors are notoriously bad at handling money.)

    Where does Tammy Faye fit into this mess? Even after watching The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I'm still not sure. She seems to be a woman who either attracts trouble or is powerfully attracted to it; she has a natural sunniness that enables her to survive intense periods of darkness, but why she would fall in with a string of shady characters remains a mystery. In this film, which was made years after the scandals, she doesn't seem temperamentally different from the heavily mascaraed character who dominated our tv sets for several years in the late 80s. She's performing to much smaller crowds, often at lectures and benefit concerts, but her warbling is the same and her choice of material?musical and rhetorical?doesn't seem to have changed much either. The press notes describe her as moving from "religious zealot to compassionate humanist," but I don't ever remember being as appalled and unnerved by her and Jim Bakker in the 80s as I was by many of her contemporaries, Falwell especially. Tammy Faye comes across more as an indefatigable life force whose sheer zest for life eclipses and then elevates her limits as a preacher and performer. Perhaps, like many actors and musicians, she loves performing so much that she'll do it anywhere. Her imaginative life?weird as it might seem to casual spectators?allows her to keep going when all seems lost. Or as Tammy Faye herself says, "You cannot go forward looking in the rearview mirror of your life."