The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

6/10

USA (US/UK) 2000 : Jeff BAILEY and Randy BARBATO : 79 mins*

Enjoyable TV-style documentary on the rollercoaster life of “America’s first lady of religious broadcasting.” Having soared to nationwide fame with the Christian networks created by her husband Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye’s world fell apart when Jim was revealed as an adulterer, then convicted of various corporate misdeeds and imprisoned. Though Bailey and Barbato assemble interviews with all the major players in the drama, it’s very much Tammy Faye’s perspective on events: ‘Through the Eyes of Tammy Faye’ would be a more accurate title.

The lady herself is nothing if not a survivor – as one commentator notes “After the holocaust, there’ll be roaches, Tammy Faye, and Cher.” The larger-than-life, gaudily-costumed and made-up Tammy Faye is also like a lachrymose cross between Dolly Parton and Viv Nicholson, the ‘spend spend spend’ British pools-winner millionairess who turned to God when tragedy and bankruptcy struck. But while directors Bailey and Barbato never stint on emphasising the camp appeal of their ‘heroine’, we soon realise that their intent isn’t entirely ironic.

As they gleefully catalogue the extremely un-Christian behaviour that marked so much of the corporate religious right during the Reagan eighties, Tammy Faye emerges surprising well. She certainly comes across better than her oily former husband Jim, not to mention his main rival in the god-box stakes, the demonically sinister Jerry Falwell – who ruthlessly exploits Bakker’s downfall for his own ends. As none other than Pat Boone notes, “Christians are one army that kills their wounded. we don’t try to nurse ’em back to health.”

Whatever else she may be, however, Tammy Faye could never be accused of that kind of malice – indeed, in her early-80s concern for AIDS sufferers, she was daringly progressive and ahead of her time. Tammy Faye’s faith, while manifesting itself in somewhat gaudy forms, is clearly 100 per cent genuine – and it’s obviously helped her through the many rocky patches in her life. By the end, she’s gone from being a figure of fun to something approaching an engagingly gutsy heroine, and the film has become rather more of an endorsement of faith than its cheeky makers probably intended.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (the title refers to the former Mrs Bakker’s unique approach to mascara application) is also full of wild footage that (topically) emphasises just how absurd, grotesque – and dangerous – the religious right can be, especially in an America where religion and politics are all too often insidiously intertwined. Highlights include Bakker solemnly informing his viewers that “the Praise-The-Lord network will broadcast 24 hours a day until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ,” and, best of all, a besuited Falwell undergoing a full-body baptism at the top of a waterslide – then zooming all the way down to the splash into the pool at the bottom. It would all make a great, if somewhat implausible, feature-film – and in fact, it already has: Barbato and Bailey include some tantalisingly brief clips from an early-90s TV-movie entitled Fall From Grace, with none other than an amusingly young-looking, pre-Oscar Kevin Spacey as a satyr-like Bakker.

18th August, 2003
(TV version seen on video, 7th August)

* review based on 51-minute TV version. The theatrically-shown extended version is narrated by RuPaul, and also features interviews with Tammy Faye’s children.

by Neil Young