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NEWS FEATURE: Exploring the Eyes _ and the Soul _ of Tammy Faye

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) If the eyes are the windows of the soul, what can one deduce about the soul of Tammy Faye Bakker from eyes that are guarded by large, garish lashes attached by copious amounts of glue; and which are surrounded by layers of mascara and makeup, which are transformed into […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) If the eyes are the windows of the soul, what can one deduce about the soul of Tammy Faye Bakker from eyes that are guarded by large, garish lashes attached by copious amounts of glue; and which are surrounded by layers of mascara and makeup, which are transformed into rivers of multi-hued goo when watered by her frequent tears of joy or sorrow?

This is just one of the questions that documentary filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey explore in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (PG-13), a critically acclaimed film that captures Tammy Faye in all her gaudy, godly glory and opens in theaters throughout much of the country this weekend.

Long hailed as the first woman of religious broadcasting, Tammy Faye, along with her former husband Jim, launched “The 700 Club” on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network; helped Paul Crouch co-found the Trinity Broadcasting Network; and in 1974 gave birth to the PTL (Praise the Lord) network, which beamed an upbeat, entertaining message of God’s love around the globe via satellite.

In 1978, Jim and Tammy broke ground for their Heritage USA theme park, which attracted 6 million visitors a year before PTL’s mounting financial problems and Jim’s highly publicized sex scandal brought the whole empire crashing down.

The fact that Barbato and Bailey are openly gay, and that they asked drag superstar RuPaul Charles to narrate their affectionate if quirky documentary, only adds drama to a film whose central character experienced the dizzying heights of Christian celebrity before falling to the depths of despair, drug addiction, divorce and demonization by the media and the very supporters who had once idolized her.

Why would filmmakers who have been recognized by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for their contributions to gay and lesbian programming choose to focus on one of the major players in Christian broadcasting, a world many members of the gay community regard as an evil empire due to its frequent condemnations of homosexuals?

The answer, they say, lies in Tammy Faye’s unique combination of “spirituality and fabulousness.”

“Tammy Faye is a fabulous mess,” they say, “and we mean that in the kindest way.” Much as many gays have embraced performers like Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand and Cher, some have likewise embraced Tammy Faye.

But as the film reveals, she is more than a Bible-thumping gay icon. If possible, she is something even more unusual: a major Christian leader who for nearly 20 years has treated gays with love and respect.

As the documentary shows, Tammy Faye once interviewed a gay minister who had AIDS on “PTL” during the early ’80s, a time when homosexuality either wasn’t on the radar for most conservative Christians or, if it was, was considered a moral plague. And in 1996, she shared the TV limelight with gay comedian Jim J. Bullock on the short-lived talk program, “The Jim J. & Tammy Show.”

Since then, the love Tammy Faye has given to the gay community has been returned to her in full. “When my husband (second husband Roe Messner] was in prison and I wasn’t getting any Christmas presents, it was the gay community that gathered around me and saw that (I did),” she told an interviewer for The Advocate, the national gay magazine. “They cared about me more than the Christians cared for me,” she said.

As Christian gay activist Mel White says in the film, “I think gay people like Tammy because Tammy likes gay people, and she’s one of the only Christians in the world who seems to do so these days.”

Still, why would Tammy Faye trust two gay filmmakers to tell her life story? After repeatedly rejecting their requests, she was finally won over by, yes, their eyes.

“I was afraid to do this film,” she said in a press interview she did with Barbato and Bailey, “but when I met you guys, I looked in your eyes, and I knew you were honest.”

By the end of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Barbato and Bailey have redeemed a much-maligned public figure _ remember the satirical T-shirt featuring a drawing of Tammy Faye’s face, a Technicolor glob of color, and the words, “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall”? _ and portrayed her as a paragon of Christian virtues.

Contrasting her flamboyant but friendly faith with the more combative approach of televangelists like Robertson, Crouch and Jerry Falwell _ all of whom declined to appear in the film _ Barbato and Bailey hail Tammy Faye as a solitary messenger of God’s love.

And when she closes the film by singing the words, “Don’t give up on the brink of a miracle,” one vainly struggles to imagine what the irrepressible Tammy Faye will be up to next.

DEA END RABEY