The Woman Behind the Mascara
On the opening night of OUTFEST: The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey introduced their new film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. When asked the question on everyone’s mind that night “Why open a gay film festival with a movie about Tammy Faye?” one of them exclaimed, “Because it’s Tammy Faye!”
According to their documentary, the former puppeteer/gospel singer/preacher’s wife/talk show host appeals to a gay audience because she is a Christian and gay-friendly. The point is reinforced in a short scene in which Tammy conducts an interview with a gay Christian pastor with AIDS, during which she chastises the Christian community for their lack of compassion for AIDS patients. Perhaps needless to say, this scene sparked a round of applause from the OUTFEST audience. Appearing in the film, writer/gay rights activist Mel White (father of Chuck and Buck writer/star Chris White) explains that this moment is significant. While other fire-and-brimstone Christian televangelists were condemning homosexuals to hell, Tammy Faye was the only one who would reach out to a gay man, let alone one with AIDS. She also co-hosted a short-lived talk show (The Jim and Tammy Show) with a real live homosexual, JM J. Bullock (of Too Close for Comfort fame). What’s more, as Tammy asserts in the film, her co-host’s sexuality was never an issue: “I don’t label people. I refuse to label people. We are all just people made out of the same old dirt. And God didn’t make any junk.”
Still, and her passion for mascara aside (MAC cosmetics was a co-sponsor of the OUTFEST opening), Tammy Faye has a long way to go before she can join the pantheon of widely accepted gay icons. When I was watching her host the PTL Club in the early 1980’s, I always thought of her more as an entertaining oddity—a bizarre cross between a country singer, a drag queen, and Elmer Gantry. Nearly twenty years and several scandals later, Tammy Faye is still her entertaining self in this documentary chronicling her and former husband Jim Bakker’s rise and fall as the queen king of televangelism. Nicely shot on digital video, The Eyes of Tammy Faye paints its subject as a victim and a survivor: Bullock quips that, after a holocaust, the survivors will be cockroaches, Cher, and Tammy Faye.
The documentary has no pretense of being an unbiased account of Tammy Faye’s life. Barbato and Bailey paint a sympathetic portrait in their recounting of the fall of PTL, her addiction to pills, her husband’s adultery, etc. And although she played a major role in the creation of the PTL empire, she is positioned as an innocent bystander while the ministry’s funds were being mishandled. Her knowledge or possible participation in the financial shenanigans is never addressed by the film. This is only one of its many oversights: The Eyes of Tammy Faye never digs much deeper into its subject than the celebrity puff-pieces running daily on E! Entertainment Television and VH-1.
Narrated by RuPaul Charles (another heavily made-up gay icon and spokesperson for MAC cosmetics), the film describes, through a blend of clips and interviews, the various stages of Jim and Tammy’s broadcasting career, from serving as the hosts of a Christian children’s puppet show to creating The 700 Club, the Trinity Broadcast Network, and eventually, their own Christian satellite network, the PTL Club. The couple raised millions from viewer pledges, and used these funds to build their headquarters, the soon-infamous Heritage, U.S.A., a Christian theme park in Charlotte, North Carolina. The question raised by this remarkable series of events is this: why did Christians around the world embrace this couple and send them their hard-earned dollars? But Barbato and Bailey don’t provide much insight into the televangelism movement of the 1970’s and 80’s or the reason(s) behind the phenomenal success of Jim and Tammy.
In looking for a villain for their story, the filmmakers bypass Jim Bakker, who was convicted and served time in prison for fraud, and go after Jerry Falwell, who underhandedly took PTL from Bakker and brought the ministry down. Falwell, like many of the other players in this story, including Jessica Hahn, was asked to participate in the film. Tammy Faye herself is seen repeatedly writing them letters requesting an interview. Though they all declined to be interviewed (and some didn’t even respond to Tammy Faye or the filmmaker’s requests), the obviously staged image of Tammy Faye sitting at her typewriter banging out these letters becomes a running gag (at least, the OUTFEST audience was chuckling when the shot came up the third and fourth times). Perhaps more importantly, her repeated rejection by former friends and enemies makes poor Tammy Faye appear in an increasingly sympathetic light.
Some of that sympathy extends to ex-husband Jim, whom Tammy Faye continues to declare innocent of dipping his hands into the church till. However, the documentary includes footage shot during the scandal, revealing their lavish lifestyle during the height of their popularity, which suggests otherwise. Perhaps she’s too forgiving. When she has a chance in the film to confront one of her detractors, she comes across as more pathetic than sympathetic. For the first time, she meets face-to-face with Charles Shepherd, who covered the story for The Charlotte Observer and later wrote his own book on the scandal, Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. Tammy gets teary-eyed as she demands an apology from Charles, who insists his book is an honest account of the scandal. Tammy Faye doesn’t offer any evidence to the contrary; instead she starts weeping and insisting Jim Bakker is an honest man and PTL was an honest organization.
The filmmakers generously provide Tammy Faye ample screen time to tell her side of the story. Yet, the film’s structure is highly problematic. Barbato and Bailey divide their subject’s story into chapters which are introduced by two hand puppets. The puppets read title cards featuring cliche phrases such as “A Star Is Born,” and “Love at First Sight.” The device, which worked so well in the 1995 children’s film, Babe seems inappropriate and mean-spirited here. A title such as “Things Can Only Get Worse” trivializes serious events in Tammy Faye’s life, such as the failure of her short-lived television talk show with Bullock, her battle with cancer, and the imprisonment of her second husband, Roe Messner, for bankruptcy fraud.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye ends with Tammy Faye making the rounds of Hollywood in an attempt to revive her stalled career. The film asks that our hearts go out to her, as if she is one of those old show biz troopers who has faced adversity and is now ready for a comeback. Unfortunately, Tammy Faye comes across more like Norma Desmond than Tina Turner—a tad removed from reality, but very ready for her close-up.