Born Again?

Tammy Faye Bakker's back, but don't be afraid this time

She chuckles again, the human kewpie doll who has, in recent years, become an icon in the gay community. As the film reminds us, Tammy Faye was the sole member of the televangelist set to embrace AIDS victims on the air, to openly champion gay civil rights. For that, the filmmakers honor her, and we empathize with her. Bailey and Barbato even rounded up the Rev. Mel White, an openly gay minister, to sing her praises: She is, he hints, one of us (perhaps because, with her permanently tattooed eyeliner and lipliner, she looks like a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman -- the post-modern drag queen).

Narrated by RuPaul and divided into "chapters" that are introduced by hand puppets, The Eyes of Tammy Faye skirts the line between homage and parody; it mocks that which it purports to lovingly celebrate. The film opens with Tammy Faye babbling on about how she collects the eyeglasses of the dead, including her own mother, so they can see through her eyes. It's an eerie and almost laughable moment: This woman's a nut, we think, our long-held prejudices doing her in even before the story begins.

But we then see her wandering through the California desert, trudging through a wasteland where telephone poles jut out of the ground like ancient crosses, and we begin to feel mercy toward Tammy Faye -- a woman crucified for the sins of others, a mother whose two children were humiliated by what Jim had done.

Her cross to bear: Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner, forgiven and, for the most part, forgotten
Greg Gorman
Her cross to bear: Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner, forgiven and, for the most part, forgotten

Tammy Faye -- who longs to get back on television "to take advantage of the hurt I've been through to help other people" -- still insists she and Jim did no wrong, claiming they were brought down by government officials frightened that the religious right, in the form of Pat Robertson, might be elected president one day: Disgrace the Bakkers, and the rest will tumble like dominoes. She maintains that theirs was a faithful flock even after Jim was sentenced, and that the Bakkers' only crime was that they "didn't hide anything from anyone, ever." So it's not surprising to discover she had a hard time watching the movie, no matter how flattering its intentions.

"It's interesting to see your whole life flashed before your eyes!" she says, almost screaming into the phone. "Thank God it's all I've done, but when you see it pass before you, it's almost as if it didn't happen to you, because it was almost too much to take in. I laughed, I cried -- more crying than laughing. It brought back wonderful memories, and it brought back pretty sad memories. For three days after I first saw the movie, I was just kind of stunned. My son said he felt the same way about it, that he loved the film. He got sick during the film, because, of course, he was a little boy when all that happened, and this is bringing his whole life back to him again. For three days, he was just totally depressed by looking at what we had watched and how life had changed for him; he said it was like having a hangover. That's what happened to me. I was just sad."

The most astonishing thing about The Eyes of Tammy Faye -- and the voice of Tammy Faye -- is that it converts even the most ardent nonbeliever, until it becomes impossible to mock her any longer. She's suffered enough; time to move on to other, better targets.

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