Inside Deep Throat didn’t. Equally revelatory and
entertaining, the film overcomes Tammy Faye’s uncomfortably screwy public
persona — she still flies the freak banner high here, but a little less
gloriously — by offering what will be for many viewers their first unprocessed
glimpse of Tammy Faye’s unfettered spirituality, which while so hard to accept
at face value in reductive media snippets here informs her character and comes
off as altogether genuine. Tammy Faye is thus resurrected, unlikely though it
may seem, as a sensitive, sympathetic and generally good-hearted martyr who
found herself in over her head, and paid with the sort of complete humiliation
that only a 24-hour cable news cycle world can dispense.
The film opens by detailing its subject’s childhood and her April Fool’s Day
marriage (a telling date, some would say) to an earnest young itinerant preacher
named Jim Bakker. After watching their successful local children’s TV show fold,
the two went on to launch The 700 Club, the first Christian talk show of
its kind. A dream of Jim’s, it was an afterthought as part of a deal with Jerry
Falwell for the pair to create and oversee another children’s show based around
their puppet characters — a sort of Mr. and Mrs. Bakker’s Neighborhood,
if you will. Both were successful, but it was the former that became a
phenomenal worldwide hit over satellite and cable outlets before Jim and Tammy
Faye were ousted acrimoniously.
The couple then started Praise the Lord, another Christian cable TV venture.
The response was huge; Jim and Tammy Faye were bonafide small screen stars, and
their dreams of a non-denominational Christian empire culminated in the
construction of Heritage USA, a sprawling, immaculately designed resort and
water theme park. Soon though, PTL turned into a never-ending telethon, with
Bakker claiming that he needed to raise three or four million dollars a week
just to stay afloat. Uncertain with the direction of it all and stricken with
panic attacks, Tammy Faye developed an addiction to painkillers. Proving tragedy
and comedy often come in threes, the PTL dream then came crashing down in a hail
of embezzled donations, bitter feuding, familial back-biting and, of course,
Bakker’s notorious sex scandal with Jessica Hahn, amusingly rendered here with
an interview and, umm, artistic footage from her Playboy home video.
Though the filmmakers have an obvious affection for their subject, The
Eyes of Tammy Faye is relatively even-handed in its presentation of opinion,
if not necessarily the most deep-digging piece of entertainment journalism.
Bailey and Barbato stock their film with production bells and whistles both
playful (sock puppet bumpers introduce scenes with thematic cards like “A Star
Is Born” and “Love at First Sight”) and grandiose (Falwell’s kiss-off press
conference in which he claimed the Bakkers were attempting to extort money from
PTL plays complete with slow motion and shrieking music of betrayal). There’s
also a terrific sense of humor and chiding juxtaposition throughout. In one
scene, Tammy Faye explains that she’s kicked prescription pain killers and all
other addictions — except for Diet Coke, which can’t be that bad since it’s a
habit she shares with President Clinton, who is then seen tersely sipping a
frosty one during his Monica Lewinsky deposition.
It may seem strange to call a film like The Eyes of Tammy Faye
explosive, but that’s just what it is — a fascinating, cathartic,
from-the-ground-up reconstruction of an American pariah, and a full-bodied,
three-dimensional look at one of the more outrageous personalities of the
opening salvos of a culture war that’s still raging in this country.