The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Shamelessly flattering and melodramatic, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" may strike some viewers as stretching nonfiction cinema's parameters until its mascara runs with tears.

After one Sundance screening of her new film portrait — she duly attended them all — former televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker claimed that when the directors first approached her, she “didn’t even know what a documentary was.” Well, her innocence has been preserved. Shamelessly flattering and melodramatic, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” may strike some viewers as stretching nonfiction cinema’s parameters until its mascara runs with tears.

A festival aud favorite, its tabloid-ish empathy lightly frosted via camp fillips (including deploying RuPaul as narrator), pic is best viewed as a telepic-style true-life drama, with the actual individuals waxing more soap operatic than actor stand-ins could ever achieve. It’s fun to watch — but it sure ain’t journalism. Cinemax co-production could score some theatrical dates with sarcastic urbanites; those who don’t find the whole spectacle amusing (or, God forbid, poignant) may be a tad aghast at a docu so one-sided it might well have been created by the Bakkers’ erstwhile PTL network.

Born eldest of eight children in Minnesota, 17-year-old Tammy Faye married young evangelist Jim Bakker in 1960. Their chemistry quickly developed a following on the gospel circuit, leading to a stint on future Christian media mogul Pat Robertson’s first regional TV channel. Hosting both a children’s program and a chat show — the deathless “700 Club” — they drove ratings heavenward. Perhaps a wee jealous, Robertson soon usurped the “Club’s” star spot for himself, and the Bakkers moved on to co-found the Trinity Broadcasting Network, but that vehicle, too, was wrestled away by partners. Third time lucky, the duo established yet a third TV ministry. The North Carolina-based PTL Network then rode a rising wave of fundamentalist fervor to gaudy heights.

As has been well chronicled elsewhere (including the far more inquisitive docu “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done”), this fiefdom eventually came crashing down in a series of mid-’80s public scandals. Building the now-shuttered Christian theme park Heritage USA contributed to monumental overhead (Jim Bakker estimates PTL’s fund-raising goal at one point was $1 million per week) as evidence of financial improprieties and mismanagement surfaced. Then Jim paid $265,000 in hush money to one-time fling Jessica Hahn (glimpsed here revealing the “real me” — and then some — in a subsequent Playboy Celebrity Centerfold video). Prescription drug addiction landed Tammy Faye at the Betty Ford Clinic.

The party was really over once powerful rival Jerry Falwell offered to “help” the Bakkers by suppressing the Hahn story — so long as they handed over PTL, an allegedly temporary rescue that turned into a hostile takeover. Bankruptcy, divorce and Jim’s five-year sentence for fraud ensued. An “exiled” Tammy then married close business associate Roe Messner — who was promptly sent to the fed hoosegow on similar charges.

One might well question whether these people merit our sympathy. But “Eyes” has no doubts on that score. Virtually the only critical commentator interviewed is the Charlotte Observer reporter who first burst the Bakkers’ bubble. No hard questions are asked of the star duo, who still attribute any “mistakes” to helplessness under pressure; nor are their two children’s past “troubles” specified.

A roll call of apologists attests to the couple’s “unfair” treatment. But their whining is strictly amateur-night compared with the Bakkers themselves: Jailbird Jim recalls a televangelist workload so heinous that “at the end of the day I would literally have to think to walk.” Tammy moans (boasts?) that “O.J. Simpson was nothing” beside the media roasting they endured.

She’s still ready to weep at the drop of a hat — or flick of a camera switch. Helmers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbain (“Party Monster”) are not exactly blind to her iconic kitsch value, as revealed in songs, sartorial splendor and miscellaneous showmanship via oft-hilarious PTL clips. They visit a latter-day TV executive’s office so we can feel her pain when some series pitches (e.g., “Tammy’s Terrific Teens”) go unappreciated. We’re also privileged to witness Tammy Faye getting a photo-session “new look,” and to see her fighting terror during a stormy plane ride. Natch, there’s an inspirational “comeback” finale, as she headlines her first gospel concert in 10 years.

Incredibly, Tammy Faye advised one post-screening aud, “Don’t have ‘pity parties’! Don’t allow yourself to be a victim.” Yet “Eyes” is consummate Enabler Cinema — it’s nothing if not a vehicle for this world-class victim to strut her considerable stuff. Susan Hayward’s entire screen oeuvre pales against so much noble suffering. A thin veneer of jokey irony provided by the helmers’ “chapter” titles (e.g., “Things Can Only Get Worse”), all announced by sock-puppets, doesn’t quite erase the sense that “Eyes” is hypocritically invested in its subject’s relentless, revisionist image-hawking.

Though later sections drag a bit, pace is otherwise lively. Tech package is fine by TV standards, with some older broadcast clips in rather worn condition.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

  • Production: A World of Wonder production in association with Cinemax. Produced, directed by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbain.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Sandra Chandler; editor, Paul Wiesepape; music producer, Jim Harry; researchers, Samantha Bickley, Edward Rohwedder; associate producers, Thairin Smothers, Gabriel Rotello. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2000. Running time: 79 MIN.
  • With: <b>Narrator:</b> RuPaul Charles