The Grim Weeper

Reviews of the latest films.
July 28 2000 8:00 PM

The Grim Weeper

The Eyes of Tammy Faye gives an icon her due. X-Men dares to have gravitas. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
Lions Gate Films

Girl on the Bridge
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Paramount Classics

X-Men
Directed by Bryan Singer
20th Century Fox

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The surprise heroine of the summer movie season wears nearly as much makeup as the mutant gals of X-Men and also has a superhuman talent: She can flood her cheeks with salt water without streaking her mascara. She's Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a hilarious, poignant, lovingly ironic celebration of her rise and fall and her refusal to be broken. The directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, have turned the story of her life into a camp jeremiad. They frankly acknowledge that their protagonist is a joke, a veritable gay-bar icon of florid suffering. But if she's a phony, she's a sincere one. Tammy Faye seems naturally to ooze kitsch, and her L'Oréal mask has become her true face. Her disgrace and exile emerge as deeply unjust—a victory for the forces of unfabulousness. You leave the theater wanting to holler, "Tammy Faye Lives!"

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The movie opens with its subject discussing—what else?—her base and mascara. (The eyeliner is permanent.) "Without my eyelashes," she explains, "I wouldn't be Tammy Faye. I don't know who I'd be." Although photographs reveal an artlessly pretty young girl, she embraced showbiz artifice early as a way of escaping the vindictive God of her childhood training. Tammy Faye went in search of a faith that would be friendlier, more forgiving. She married the charismatic preacher Jim Bakker at age 17, whereupon the pair toured the revival circuit and devised a puppet show for kiddies that quickly became the highest-rated Christian TV program on the air. They were also the creators of The 700 Club. But people like Jerry Falwell appropriated their inventiveness, and it wasn't until the Bakkers started their own ministry, the PTL (Praise the Lord) network, that they had a platform from which to promulgate their open-arms philosophy. "Christianity should be fun, it should be joyful," declaims Jim in the early 1970s. "It's not a drag to be saved!"

Bailey and Barbato have unearthed a promo for Tammy Faye that boasts a peppy, Patty Duke Show-like theme song:

Who's that bouncin' around like a ping pong ball? …
It's Tammy—
A double whammy—
Of turned-on Christian love!

Saturday Night Live, eat your heart out.

Along with many outsiders, I snickered when the Bakkers slinked off in disgrace in the late '80s: Their program was a ghoulishly sentimental freak show, and Jim's exposure as an adulterer seemed an apt fate for someone who'd made such a tacky fetish of his family values. But that was before I talked to Antony Thomas, the director of a revelatory documentary, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done (1988). Thomas' movie is a portrait of the right-wing fundamentalist movement from the perspective of a horrified Christian—a man appalled by the use of his cherished gospels to advance what seemed an antithetical message of intolerance and materialism and greed. In the film, Thomas cast a sardonic eye on the high-pressure sell tactics of the Bakkers' PTL network and their Heritage, U.S.A., theme park, but his assessment of the couple was ultimately more sympathetic. He told me in 1988:

Bakker's personality means something to me in a way that Falwell's doesn't. Falwell is an up and down brute, with no nuance except an ability to appear like everyone's favorite uncle when the cameras are rolling and a sort of SS Oberfuhrer when they're not. Have you ever seen him candid? A very frightening man—a bully, a thug. Bakker's message to his people was the opposite. It was, "I hate religiosity. Prostitutes, sinners, those were the people that Christ lived with and we must learn from them." It was a soft, accommodating message, quite different from the tub-thumping fundamentalists'. That fascinated me, as well as the warmth that flowed through this blue-collar audience for these people. Tammy made a speech: "I said to God, 'People accuse me of being a Jezebel with makeup,' and God said to me, 'Tammy, I want you to be pretty.' " They could touch buttons that nobody else could. How much of it was instinctive and how much of it was calculated I don't know.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye suggests that in Tammy Faye's case, it was instinct, as easy as breathing. Although that fright mask makes her look like some kind of Greek goddess of runny schmaltz, she also seems pathetically exposed. In the final days of PTL, with her husband endlessly fund raising for Heritage, U.S.A. (it took a million a week just to keep the creditors at bay), she became addicted to Atavan, and the movie shows her fidgety and distracted on their telecasts, wandering off in a drug haze or blurting out to the folks at home that she didn't take her medicine because the day before she'd been zonked out of her skull. What the reverent masses made of that spectacle is hard to imagine, but in The Eyes of Tammy Faye it brings down the house.

Bailey and Barbato open each segment of the film with a pair of squeaky hand puppets—which might be pushing their mockery a tad far. But they certainly want to ingratiate Tammy Faye with the gay portion of the audience. She's shown publicly coddling AIDS victims at a time when the religious right frankly shunned them, and later, after her fall, briefly co-hosting a talk show with an openly gay man, Jim J. Bullock. (Today, Bullock extols her ability to survive: "After the holocaust," he says, "all that's left will be roaches, Tammy Faye, and Cher.")

The movie is Tammy Faye's side (few of her critics or former associates would agree to be interviewed), but it's a compelling one. A lot of people think Jim Bakker was unfairly convicted of fraud, and the case against Falwell—who stepped in to play caretaker of PTL and then suddenly denounced the Bakkers as loonies and greedheads (and, in Jim's case, a homosexual)—rings chillingly true. In one scene, Tammy Faye confronts the PTL's Charlotte Observer muckraker, Charles E. Shepard, who seems at a loss when pressed to substantiate the charge that her husband stole money. (He does ask her to autograph copies of his book on her perfidy for a charity auction.) That the Bakkers lived high is beyond a doubt—but no more so than any other prominent televangelist. And the couple, at least, brought the cameras into their home in an effort to share the spirit of affluence with their "partners." Their domestic joy might have been a hopeful charade, but their vision of Heritage, U.S.A.—that Christian happy park—was not, and when today's Tammy Faye slips through a fence and wanders the crumbling ruin of what once was her City on a Hill, the scene is like a cold slap.

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