"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 06 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Whys of Tammy Faye


Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's amiable, jaunty Tammy Faye Bakker documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, portrays the former televangelist, talk-show host, and world-class weeper in a manner as relentlessly surface-fixated as the former Mrs. Bakker's permanent mascara. The film divides its narrative between a commentary-laden recap of Tammy Faye's rise and fall as a pioneer host personality in Christian evangelical television (culminating in the PTL ministry collapse in the late 1980s), and a series of personal travails and manufactured showbiz comeback hoops, a Mr. Bill Show version of the crises facing the protagonist of a 1950s "women's movie." Tammy Faye is seen picking up second husband Roe Messner from prison, pitching ludicrously unwatchable television vehicles to the USA network, and appearing on the Roseanne show. The filmmakers seem determined to depict Tammy Faye as an innocent, at least in the context of the twin shark pools of the religious and entertainment communities in which she has repeatedly tried to gain a foothold. For even the cynical audience member, say someone who believes that holding hands and engaging in on-camera couch talk with Jim J. Bullock is less about innocence than about an overwhelming need to perform, the accumulation of sympathetic detail in The Eyes of Tammy Faye is awesome to behold. Her wide-eyed, trusting nature easily trumps the Paul Crouches and Jerry Falwells the film accuses of varying levels of professional betrayal. Our heroine shines so brightly that one almost doesn't recall the very basic questions the filmmakers avoid asking: Just what are the ethics of living off the phoned-in donations of the faithful, many of whom operate from restricted financial circumstances? Is being the least-savvy shark in a pool of spiritual chum anything to brag about? At what point does a good heart stop being an excuse and start being an indictment?

According to the movies, maybe never. Innocents like Tammy Faye are a popular film lead choice of the micro-moment. Two respected film directors, Neil Labute and Lars Von Trier, debuted films at this year's Cannes festival starring muppet-like actresses (Renée Zellweger in Labute's Nurse Betty; Björk in Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark) whose innocent, showbiz-oriented outlooks amid grungy contexts bestow them with some small measure of reality-altering power. In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe portrays everyone — save perhaps one record company executive and a couple of Rolling Stone editors — as people whose best personality traits come from clinging to a wide-eyed view of the world and human nature, all brought into bold relief by the cleansing nature of his own beatific, 15-year-old face. Mike White's compelling portrayal of the man-child Buck in Chuck and Buck, a movie for which White provided the screenplay, bravely negotiates several ugly stereotypes and creepy behavior patterns by using two of the subtler tricks directors use to keep protagonists of Mel Gibson-style action movies from being seen as murderous psychotics — never question the authenticity of the emotions involved, and keep the camera squarely on the lead to allow for maximum audience comfort and tolerance. The multiplexes are awash in doe eyes and the clumsy brushing away of tears.

The strangest of all the recent innocents on film is Tammy Faye's fellow documentary subject Mark Byers, the monstrous father and unrepentant camera hog from Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's sort-of sequel to their 1996 movie about the murder-mutilations of three Arkansas children. Berlinger and Sinofsky don't shy away from the uglier questions about Byers — the film stops just short of stamping a computer-generated "murderer" on his head in post-production — but Byers's insistence on his lack of guilt and his compulsion to prove it on camera are as innocent in their own way as Tammy Faye's hallway embrace of an unbeknown detractor. Byers's faith in his own television and film image helps humanize someone we are otherwise led to believe impossibly inhuman; at the very least, Byers's readiness to perform provides the movie's only laugh-out-loud moments.

Does the unblinking attention Berlinger and Sinofsky give Byers's ugly side make them better filmmakers than Bailey and Barbato? Maybe. But one can hardly blame The Eyes of Tammy Faye for failing to come to terms with the implications of a specific religious practice — their movie has the added burden of having to negotiate the American reluctance to deal with substantive religious issues. The few religious men and women operating in the U.S. public sphere are almost always understood in their pertinent cultural context rather than for the substance of what they profess. Joseph Lieberman's stump statements concerning faith become a launching point for a discussion of political decorum rather than an opportunity to discuss how much old-time religion Americans want from a potential president.Luis Palau's successful religious revivals in North American cities end up interpreted as an outgrowth of middle America's fascination with Hispanic culture, while one finds the growing influence of Texas minister T.D. Jakes's ministry discussed in terms of his appeal to celebrities or even his unofficial political outreach work. Even the Reverend Billy Graham is seen more as Presidential golf partner and confidant than compelling religious figure — in the public consciousness, staying near President Bush during one Gulf War is worth ten thousand altar calls.

In a world where Martin Luther King, Jr. sometimes loses the title of Reverend in favor of being described as a civil rights leader (as if the two were mutually exclusive), there's no reason to think American audiences will see the former Tammy Faye Bakker as a compelling figure in American Protestantism. But that's what she was: the living embodiment of the way some churches have used the isolation and loneliness felt by members as an opportunity to make a technology-driven profit. The Eyes of Tammy Faye shares the sunny certainty of its subject matter, and the larger religious issues are cast in terms of big-screen personal redemption. If being appreciated for her kitsch value and thundering lack of self-awareness means Tammy Faye finds some semblance of forgiveness from those who see her as a nostalgia piece and potential Politically Incorrect panelist, is it the Christian thing to do to allow that moment of grace? Or is that in our rush to embrace the publicly pure-at-heart, to forgive them every peccadillo in deference to the authenticity projected upon that portion of their character we find most appealing, we're not offering grace to anyone other than ourselves.


courtesy of 40th Street Black

pictures by Terry Colon

40th Street Black