"When she was born," her aunt recalls, "she had perfectly manicured fingernails." She still does. She also has eyelashes so firmly attached that she never removes them: "They have to sort of wear out. When one falls off, I replace it." Tammy Faye Bakker, once the evangelizing queen of a global satellite network, now "living in virtual exile in a gated community in Palm Springs," is the subject of "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," a new documentary by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey.
Her saga is well known. How she and first husband Jim Bakker began as traveling evangelists, parlayed a puppet show into TV stardom, created three TV networks, were the first Christian broadcasters with their own satellite, and built the theme park Heritage USA near Charlotte, N.C.--while Jim, court records show, was defrauding his viewers of millions. He went to prison, is now on parole and remarried. After their divorce ("we're still friends"), Tammy married Roe Messner, who oversaw construction on Heritage USA. Alas, he was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and spent two years in prison, being released in early 1999.
All movies about women like this are required by law to contain the words "she's a survivor." But John J. Bullock, the co-host of her most recent talk show, "John J. and Tammy Faye," puts a new spin on it: "She's a survivor. After the holocaust, there will be roaches, Tammy Faye and Cher." When Jim and Tammy were on the air in the 1980s, I confess to watching them, not because I was saved, but because I was fascinated. They were like two little puppets themselves--Howdy Doody and Betty Boop made flesh. Tammy Faye cried on nearly every show and sang with the force of a Brenda Lee, and when she'd do her famous version of "We're Blest," yes, dear reader, I would sing along with her.
The documentary reveals that she was a bundle of nerves in those days, as Jim withdrew into an obsession with Heritage USA empire-building (and brooded no doubt over his infamous one-night stand with Jessica Hahn). Tammy became addicted to pills and her attention sometimes seemed to drift; directors Barbato and Bailey plundered the video archives to find moments like the one where Jim says, "Now Tammy's going to sing for us," and Tammy is discovered wandering at the back of the set, gazing at a prop and saying, "I'm looking at this boat." But she did have chemistry and a natural TV presence, and narrator RuPaul Charles points out that she'd do two or three shows in a row, entirely ad libbed, completely comfortable without a script.
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