Well, there is just no getting around it. Tammy Faye Bakker Messner’s name recognition is off the charts. And the one thing that everyone knows for sure about her are those eyelashes. Long, thick, seemingly prehensile, they frame eyes that have wept more than everyone on your block combined, and for more TV cameras than Barbara Walters ever dreamed of having. But, rather quickly into Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary about her, it becomes uncomfortably obvious that everything else we thought we knew about this born-again kewpie doll is probably wrong.
The title of the film also refers to the fact that this telling of her rise, fall, and plucky comebacks are told strictly from Tammy’s point of view. We may never know the whole truth about PTL, Jessica Hahn, or why she feels the need to glue on those eyelashes permanently. What we do see though, is a woman who succeeds more than most in living up to her standards of the golden rule. We also see a woman who is completely at home in front of a camera. Is she sincere? Probably. Does she know how to manipulate an audience? Definitely.
Bailey and Barbato intercut interviews with Tammy Faye, her kids, her ex, and her current husband with film clips of Tammy’s life on TV. Here are some surprises. The brand of religion she and ex-hubby Jim Bakker were preaching was not about fire and brimstone. Theirs was the first evangelical movement that preached inclusion. They were the first to reach out to the gay community with a message of love, and the first to preach compassion for AIDS patients. That they were also living quite an extravagant lifestyle is unquestioned, but no more luxurious than their peers. And as for the money problems, it’s just as likely that these two small town kids who came from poverty just didn’t know what they were dealing with. Neither did they realize what they were up against with their, quote, brothers and sisters in Christ unquote, who coveted their satellite network. There may be honor among thieves, but there would seem to be none in the electronic ministry. As Pat Boone says in the film, Christians are the only ones who kill their wounded.
But they’re also smart. No evangelical would talk with her on camera or even be interviewed for this film. No matter what the real story, Tammy’s charisma, an odd blend of vulnerability and absolute sincerity, can only make them look bad.
But beyond the minutiae of her life, and it is a testament to her loopy brand of star power that we actually do care about said minutiae, Bailey and Barbato have injected a larger theme here, one that is as unexpected as it is compelling. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all be just a little like Tammy Faye, or at least the image she projects, and accept people for what and who they are, not what we think that they ought to be.