Does one have to be a North Carolinian to purely and truly loathe Jim and Tammy Bakker? That’s a tough one, you have to admit. When the smarmy gospel-thumpers were plying their trade over the airwaves in the ’70s and early ’80s, their pabulum reached around the globe, and I’m sure there were folks as far away as Outer Mongolia and South Boston, Va., who gagged whenever their revolting visages appeared on the tube.
But being in North Carolina, it seemed to me, was like swimming in the same pool where the Bakkers were pissing. And having Heritage, USA, their tacky, Jesusized Disneyland, just over the horizon in Charlotte was akin to hosting the world’s largest hog-processing plant in one’s backyard. Yes, you could say there was special edge to my detestation of the Bakkers. I practically blew a fuse anytime I was switching the channel and discovered her grotesque boohooing and his unctuous flimflammery oozing across the cathode field. When they and Jimmy Swaggart bit the dust in farragos of soap-operatic revelations and recriminations, no one smiled a bigger smile than I. As Johnny Rotten once said, good riddance to bad rubbish.
But now, SHE’S B-A-A-A-C-K. Like Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein, the former Mrs. Bakker rises from the muck and reclaims our attention in Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s campy but comprehensive documentary biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Like its title, the film is self-consciously cutesy–perhaps too much so for some viewers. Narrated by glitzy drag queen RuPaul, it tells Tammy Faye’s bizarre life story in a way that, largely because she embraced AIDS sufferers early on (who wouldn’t she weep over?), makes her into a gay icon, a Jesus-TV version of Judy Garland or Bette Davis. In doing so, it asks us to look at her sympathetically.
Lo and behold, the approach works. My longstanding antipathy to Tammy Faye made me assume that I couldn’t watch any remotely friendly film portrait of her without exploding in rage or throwing things at the screen. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye humanizes it subject to a remarkable and surprising degree in tracing her life from a Minnesota girlhood, through her imperial and drug-addled video celebrity, to her current retirement as the wife of formerly imprisoned Bakker lieutenant and PTL architect Roe Messner.
The campy-gay viewpoint has its drawbacks, surely. The filmmakers never hit Tammy Faye with tough questions about, say, the various sad fools whose meager savings she bamboozled to support her erstwhile cracker-Versailles lifestyle. Does she ever feel guilt about being a video vampire for the Lord? The film never asks. On the other hand, it has the great virtue of telling and showing us things that we don’t already know. Indeed, its frou-frou viewpoint uncovers whole dimensions of its subject that you can’t imagine a straightforward or muckraking documentary revealing. Tammy Faye’s irrepressible spunk, her ingenuity and creativity (did you know of her work as a puppeteer?), her loyalty and sympathy for various sorts of outcasts–these are undeniable aspects of the person behind the clownish makeup and gratingly shrill cheeriness.
In any case, The Eyes of Tammy Faye leaves us with another villain to hiss. In recounting the Bakkers’ fall, it paints Jerry Falwell as a character out of Machiavelli by way of Mencken, a vulture who shoved one evangelical empire toward ruin in order to enrich his own. Let’s see someone–John Waters?–try to make a sympathetic documentary about that fat-faced fraud’s life.