Tammy Faye Bakker was one of the most maligned figures of the 1980s, a squeaky-voiced, over-mascarad Imelda Marcos of televangelism. Her fall from grace when her husband, Jim, was convicted for fraud and embezzlement seemed just reward for a life of hubris and greed.
But a different portrait emerges in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's documentary about the woman behind the tarantula-leg eyelashes. If that portrait is still maddeningly incomplete by the end of this slight but engrossing film, that's probably a function not of the filmmakers' skills, but of their subject's tenacious lack of self-awareness.
Still, Tammy Faye turns out to be charming, honest and thoroughly likable. The film paints her as more of a lost lamb suffering (what else?) low self-esteem than the villain - or, at best, laughingstock - she became.
Tammy Faye grew up in Minnesota, the eldest of eight children, in a church that convinced her that God was to be feared rather than loved. When she married the young itinerant preacher Jim Bakker while still a teen-ager, she discovered that religion could be fun and, most important, unconditionally loving. When she and Jim had a hit TV show later on, they would fill it with gags and skits, and Tammy Faye was one of the first religious leaders in the country to interview an AIDS patient, making an impassioned plea to Christians to love and accept their gay brethren.
One of the most startling truths revealed in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is that the Bakkers virtually invented the electronic church, which today boasts an audience of 20 million people. Tammy's improvised puppet show became an immediate hit when she and Jim brought it to their show on Pat Robertson's CBN network. When Jim Bakker started his own late-night talk show, "The 700 Club," Robertson soon took the program for his own, effectively squeezing the Bakkers out of CBN.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" traces how the Bakkers founded the PTL network and chronicles with Shakespearean drama the machinations of Jerry Falwell to take the network - and more importantly, its powerful satellite - for his own.
One of the film's most uncomfortable moments comes when Tammy Faye meets Charles Shepherd, the Charlotte Observer reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the PTL scandal involving missing funds and a young woman named Jessica Hahn. When she asks point blank why Shepherd accused her and Bakker of stealing nearly $4 million, the intrepid writer is rendered speechless, finally meekly asking her to autograph his book about the scandal.
The filmmakers follow Tammy Faye through gospel performances and Hollywood pitch meetings, as she tries to get her life back on track. (The film catches up with her living in seclusion in Palm Springs, waiting for her second husband, Heritage USA builder Roe Messner, to get out of jail). The Hollywood scenes are wincingly painful, not just for the indignity she suffers, but for the cheerfulness with which she withstands rejection.
For all its candor, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" leaves some questions strangely unanswered. Her children - one of whom sports multiple piercings - are interviewed, but we're not told much about them, their feelings about being brought up in the limelight, or their relationship with their mother today. Another quibble is with the tiresome "Greek chorus" of puppets who introduce each segment like the mice in "Babe."
But if "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is skimpy, it's still an important correction to the record about this fascinating and misunderstood woman, who turns out to be much more than just her makeup.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye"
Starring Tammy Faye Bakker
Directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey
Rated PG-13 (some sexual content)
Running time 79 minutes
Released by Lions Gate
Sun Score ***