The eyes have it

The trials and tribulations of Tammy Faye are both lauded and lampooned in new documentary

?Opens Aug. 11

Made with an obviously tongue-in-cheek approach to its heroine, The Eyes of Tammy Faye charts the rise and fall of the helium-voiced, watery-eyed mascara-smeared PTL drama queen. Her humble Minnesota origins, her teenage marriage to itinerant preacher Jim Bakker and their early TV Christian puppet shows that made them stars on Pat Robertson's fledgling CBN network are a few milestones covered in this brief history of the modern Christianity-meets-big broadcasting American saga. A number of players in the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's religious empire refused to appear in this documentary: Jerry Falwell (who has called PTL a "moral cancer" and who, the film insinuates, helped destroy the PTL ministry) and Jessica Hahn, the tart who helped bring the televangelist down. But the Bakker family grants full access in numerous interviews: Jim Bakker and his new wife, children Tammy Sue and son Jamie, and the flamboyant, make-up spackled Tammy Faye herself. Whether she's ensconced in her Palm Springs home, surrounded by her doll collection and runty lap dogs; touring the now-abandoned Heritage Park USA Christian theme park; or confronting Charlotte Observer reporter Charles Shepherd, who broke the story of PTL's money problems 12 years ago and Jim Bakker's adultery, Faye is the Susan Lucci of her own life's soap opera.

Say what you will about Tammy Faye — she has the can't-look-away schmaltzy over-the-top charisma and showmanship of graying Vegas entertainers. And it's really her presence that makes Eyes entertaining. The filmmakers seem well aware they've found the perfect cross-over personality with Faye, someone whose perseverance and pluck appeal on their own, but whose style excesses, combined with a large segment of the population's disgust for right-wing religion, make the perfect movie "hook."

Faye is — because of her excesses — a fascinating subject for a documentary film. The absolute hysteria of her physical appearance: tattooed lip liner, eyeliner and eyebrows, those deco butterfly lashes and her Cracker Barrel-meets-Grand Ole Opry home decor make for a weird, surprising juxtaposition with the moments of real candor that come through. Though Faye courts the media spotlight with the kind of obsessiveness seen in those who grew up with a sense of social invisibility, her beloved monster in a box also tends to bite back, as in one painful scene where she pitches her ideas for a network show to USA Cable President Steven Chao, who essentially laughs in her face.

Searching for adulation and a voice in the media forest, at other times Faye bristles at showbiz phoniness, as when a gaggle of too-too Hollywood hair, make-up and wardrobe people doll Faye up in black leather for a photo session. "I'm just a farm girl" she says, clearly taken aback by the assembled talent's efforts to do a make-over on her image.

Like other American Excess icons — Liberace, Dolly Parton, Siegfried and Roy — Faye has a public image that defies comprehension. A kind of Pure Celebrity, the line between Faye on-camera belting out Christian love through a Mary Kay haze cannot be distinguished from the same diva showmanship as she holds forth on love and loss in her living room. Faye is a deliriously strange self-creation — a poor Middle-American girl's idea of beauty translated through the conventions of TV ministry and swap-meet make-up; half preacher's wife, half porn star.

With arch, snickering voice-over narration by RuPaul, Eyes is a project indebted to a camp-infused gay culture and its sense of humor about the excesses of straight society — the hypocrisy of the religious right as it commits the same sins of vice and greed it condemns. But the film is just as often part of a tradition in segments of gay fandom that applauds women who've transformed often enormous setbacks into success. As Richard Dyer argues in Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, stars like Judy Garland became gay icons for their "whole showbiz litany of tears-beneath-the-greasepaint" and the kind of moxie that allows them to rise above life's hardships. The same emotionalism and indomitable spirit that make Garland a cult figure is played up by directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey in Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Eyes' trouble is its lack of complete sincerity in embracing Faye, enhanced by such kitschy touches as the occasional appearances of hand-puppet dogs that introduce each new installment in Faye's life history. Instead, the film often feels like a ploy — drowning out the respect the gay community has often expressed for outsider women like Faye for a streak of self-consciously flamboyant, joking irony more accessible to popular audiences, leaving Eyes of Tammy Faye somewhere between a celebration and a callous sell-out.