THREE STARS – THOUGHT-PROVOKING
In the surreal world of televangelism, there is one person who embodies its ambiguities: Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner.
As Jim Bakker’s wife and professional co-host, Tammy Faye helped him launch the three most successful religious programs yet produced: The 700 Club, Trinity Broadcast Network, and the PTL Club. Talented and beloved, Tammy Faye’s evolution into a creature of the media is the fascinating tale behind the film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the selection of flamboyant Ru-Paul as the off-screen narrator is more for effect than necessity. But the effect is part of the enigma of who Tammy Faye has become: she is both a woman of unwavering faith in God and at the same time a painted caricature of both womanhood and Christianity.
It is the sincere facade of personhood that seems to endear her to both the televangelist audience and the gay community, the latter being a prominent supporter of both her comeback and the film.
The oldest daughter of a strict Pentecostal family, Tammy Faye married Jim Bakker in college and joined him in his evangelistic ministry. Her natural communication skills blossomed when she began to use puppets in his ministry and eventually starred with Jim in a show for children on Pat Robertson’s television station. Unscripted in their performances, Tammy Faye soon developed into a woman of both unexpected frankness and egotistical showmanship.
When Jim and Tammy were maneuvered out of their successful shows by both Pat Robertson and the Crouches of TBN, they eventually founded their own network, launched a satellite and began building their own theme park: Heritage U.S.A.
Successful beyond their emotional and spiritual maturity as well as their business acuity, Jim and Tammy brought about their own fall not only by Jim’s succumbing to adultery with Jessica Hahn, but also by their over-zealous attempts to raise money and build their fantasy. It was the latter that ended Jim in prison for fraud, a conviction that is challenged by legal experts in the film.
However, the film presents their fall not as being self-inflicted, but rather as being the manipulation of the most successful of all televangelists, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who ignored her request to appear on the film.
An admittedly one-sided explanation of a life and its successes and failures, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is nevertheless a compelling exploration of the world of religious television.
By its nature, the worship of God is not a spectator experience, but a participatory one. But the medium of television turns a person into a spectator of life lived in a surreal form. Most Christians, therefore, do not turn to the TV for their spiritual nurture, but enter instead into an actual sanctuary in which they participate within the community of a lived faith.
For Tammy Faye, who is both the producer and product of televangelism, the spirituality presented is a confusing image of sincere theatrics. Meant to be meaningful and beautiful, televangelism is as incongruous as the tattooed make-up on Tammy’s eyes and face.
To justify her appearance, Tammy quotes the biblical explanation that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Looking into the eyes of Tammy Faye, however, it is difficult to see into the soul of one who long ago tattooed a permanent artificiality onto its message.