The Eyes of Tammy Faye
review by Elias Savada, 28 July 2000

Odd that on the day that one American goddess says goodbye to daytime television, an older, and seemingly now wiser, talk show hostess comes back to haunt us on the bigger screen.

Goodbye Kathie Lee. Welcome back Tammy Faye.

While not cut from the same cloth, both strong-willed women have their pedestals, admirers, detractors, better than decent singing voices, and men who strayed. They are definitely survivors. But the lady that put up with Regis for fifteen years has moved on. This is Tammy’s cockeyed optimist story -- sad and true.

The creepy thing about the former televangelist (that’s Tammy Faye for any of you living in a fish bowl) is that she’s still capable of giving you goosebumps. The puffed-up hair, the round, veneer-smeared face, and those EYES™! Like some overdressed vamp, I always felt there was something fearful about this icon of Christian entertainment. Whether Tammy self-destructed on her own terms or with the “help” of the media (The Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the PTL Network fiasco, or David Letterman’s Top Ten Reasons Exxon Is Leaving Alaska: No. 6: Just got contract to take makeup off Tammy Faye Bakker.) is the basis for this new documentary by award-winning producer-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster, The Real Ellen Story, and creators of numerous television series including The Adam and Joe Show, Hollywood Fashion Machine, Manhattan Cable, and The RuPaul Show [who narrates this film]). I always felt Mrs. Bakker was a glorified, spoiled, prima donna who got her proper comeuppance.

These days I’m not so sure. The late night laughter as the butt of endless jokes has faded; could it be time to heal? Finally you get a glimpse behind her makeup while she continues to lacquer it on. Of course it’s ALL PERMANENT! Didn’t know that? Those eyebrows are tattooed on; her lips forever lined. Don’t touch those eye lashes either! Yow! The film goes behind it all, chronicling her rise and multiple falls through a series of chapters heralded by two sock puppets, a la Babe’s three little mice. It’s and amateurish touch, mildly amusing, inspired by the hand dolls that were part of the Bakker’s children’s act (Susie Moppet and Allie the Alligator I think were two of the names I heard mentioned). Pat Robertson gave them this start at his single station network, but Jim and Tammy corralled their talent into a six-year stint with The 700 Club, a local Christian newsmagazine talk show that made them stars. Robertson, ever resentful of their success, pulled them from the show and showed them the door.

Next stop? California and their friends Paul and Jan Crouch (who, like Robertson, declined to be interviewed for this film. The filmmakers make sure you know this; they shove the rejection letters in your face.) There, Jim and Tammy help create Trinity Broadcasting Network and grow TBN to a huge success, only to be shown the door.

Final stop (before jail, embarrassment, and the Betty Ford Clinic): PTL in Charlotte. Jim’s ambitions overwhelm the family (their two children grew up in front of the cameras, and suffered for it -- both reflect on camera) as the network becomes the first to launch its own satellite and air 24/7. Jim becomes a non-stop shill raising money for Heritage U.S.A., a now defunct Disney-style theme park that rivaled Mickey Mouse for the religious masses. Late in the film Tammy returns to the weed-covered retreat, abandoned in the aftermath of the PTL bankruptcy. There’s a distinct sadness in her voice as she recalls the dashed hopes of her former husband and his anal-retentive attention to detail. A touch of melancholy overcomes her as she symmetrically pushes some rusty deck chairs under a table. Jim would have liked that.

Recalling the headlines of more than a decade ago, you have to wonder now: was she a witless twit, a clueless witch, some amalgam of devil and saint? The first lady of religious television talks straight to the camera, obviously believing her decision to proceed with this project was by divine intervention. Like it or not, there’s a stain of sympathy coloring your former preconceptions as Tammy Faye challenges her audience at film’s end: “Come on people, don’t you dare give up!”

She’s also a terribly forgiving soul. Nothing wrong with that, actually. Sure, she lives in virtual seclusion in a gated community these days, pitching her ideas and starring down USA Network’s Steven Chao, who has no intention of putting her on the air. The real villains are unmasked as the cunningly nasty S.O.B. Jerry Falwell (by on-screen accusations and confirmations) and Jessica Hahn, who turned a one-nighter with Jim Bakker into a Playboy tell-all video and a tawdry made-for-TV feature (Fall From Grace) featuring Kevin Spacey and Bernadette Peters.

Filmmakers Bailey and Barbato cover all the bases and Tammy tells you true in a brisk seventy-nine minutes. She makes all us doubting Thomases feel a little less sure how to judge this American classic. Do not judge this book by its cover.

Click here to read Carrie Gorringe's film festival report.

Directed by:
Fenton Bailey
Randy Barbato

Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner
Jim Bakker
Roe Messner
Pat Boone

Narrated by 
Ru Paul




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