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Movies
'Eyes of Tammy Faye, The'

Tammy unmasked: Filmmakers go behind the scenes and into the cosmetic bag in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye'

Friday, September 08, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Any movie that can make me think kindly of Tammy Faye Bakker, the mascara-encrusted queen of '80s televangelism, may qualify as miraculous -- or, at least, worthy of a hallelujah or two.

 
   
'The Eyes Of Tammy Faye'


RATING: PG-13, for some sexual content.

WITH: Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, RuPaul Charles (narrator).

DIRECTORS: Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey.

WEB SITE: www.eyesof
tammyfaye.com

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.

 
 

In its own campy but affectionate way, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" -- now at the Denis Theater -- champions the story of a girl who cried a river and drowned the whole world alongside preacher husband Jim Bakker on their PTL (Praise the Lord) television network.

They married when she was a teen-ager and he looked like one. Maybe their youth explained their naivete, except that the pattern has continued throughout their lives. The Bakkers created successful TV formats that became the catalysts for three national Christian broadcasting networks -- each of which they lost to men they had thought were their friends.

But Jim Bakker's own indiscretions sowed the seeds of his final downfall. In his zeal to expand the PTL empire, he financially overextended himself by creating the Heritage USA theme park. He also had a sexual encounter with a woman named Jessica Hahn.

Ultimately, Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and imprisoned. Fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell offered to rescue PTL. If the allegations in the documentary are true, he double-crossed the Bakkers in a manner that was anything but Christian.

At the time, however, many people in America thought they'd gotten what they deserved. The Bakkers seemed to be able to cry at will when they needed viewers to contribute money. They milked their cheesy theatrics so energetically that skeptics couldn't imagine how anyone believed they were sincere. Tammy Faye's cosmetic mask only completed the picture of mendacity.

But directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey think it also hid something else -- a woman of talent and determination with more heart than anyone gave her credit for. She demonstrated compassion for AIDS patients when other televangelists were damning them. In the 1990s, she was a co-host for a secular TV talk show with openly gay actor Jim J. Bullock.

The movie also quotes her as saying there should be fun and laughter in Christianity. That would explain a lot of the cheesy entertainment the Bakkers brought to PTL, setting them apart from the grim political activism of Falwell and Pat Robertson, who got the Bakkers started in broadcasting but ultimately eased them out of his organization.

But what about the cosmetics? Early on, Tammy Faye shares with us the contents of her makeup bag. "I don't know what that one's for," she says at one point.

It becomes clear that the permanent eyelashes, enough foundation to support a skyscraper and the use of mascara rivaling Groucho's greasepaint mustache constitute Tammy Faye's game face.

"I think I'm ugly without it," she tells a photographer in all sincerity. As a girl from International Falls, Minn., she thought God would strike you down if you misstepped. Maybe she thinks the mask protects her, allows her to cut loose.

Yet the trials she has faced since PTL crumbled make you wonder about the hand of divine retribution and the power of faith. She has faced divorce, illness, the imprisonment of her second husband, being shunned by both Christian and secular TV -- and she perseveres.

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" tells it all in a lighthearted tone, apparently with her full cooperation. It also includes interviews with Jim Bakker, the couple's two children (their son, Jamie, has tattoos and a pierced eyebrow), second husband Roe Messner and the Charlotte Observer reporter who uncovered the Jessica Hahn scandal.

The movie dotes on her so thoroughly that it even features the author of a book who contends Jim Bakker may have been unfairly convicted.

At the same time, it wallows in Tammy Faye's camp persona and pokes gentle fun in a number of ways. The most obvious is the choice of RuPaul as narrator. The silliest may be the use of hand puppets to introduce each segment.

"Here was someone very smart who had crafted her trademark look with a great deal of self-deprecating irony," the filmmakers aver in the press notes. That may be giving her too much credit. But it's hard not to like -- or at least admire in some ways -- the lively, talkative, kitschy woman we see in the film. Who would have dreamed? Maybe we didn't want to know. Maybe we couldn't penetrate the mask. Maybe she wouldn't let us until now.



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