The Rise and Fall of Tammy Faye

As RuPaul narrates Tammy Faye’s story, puppets playfully introduce each chapter in her biography like a Greek chorus. The puppets take root from Tammy Faye’s early TV program that she hosted with her then-husband Jim Bakker on the Christian Broadcasting Network. As network television evolved and the Bakkers built the electronic church, Tammy Faye ushered kids into Jesus’s flock by light-heartedly making the lessons of the Bible accessible through humour and play. This emphasis on inclusion and happiness, rather than Old Testament fire and brimstone, underscored the work of Tammy Faye’s career that the doc reconsiders. She and Jim built an empire as they graduated from puppets to peak television. Creating something between a variety hour, a mass for shut-ins, and a talk show that anticipated Jerry Springer with just the right hint of trash, the Bakkers’ PTL (Praise the Lord) Club arguably ballooned into the biggest church of the USA.

Although The Eyes of Tammy Faye reserves its sympathy for its star subject, it doesn’t let her off the hook. As RuPaul recounts in voiceover, the success of The PTL Club blasted the Bakkers into a world in which greed, pride, and ambition are inevitably a part. The Eyes of Tammy Faye recaps the construction of an empire as the Bakkers created a theme park second only to Disney World. The faithful got down with G-O-D on rides and in posh hotels. The money rolled in and the bills piled up, so the Bakkers’ racket became more about fundraising than spreading Jesus’s love.

However, the film shows Tammy Faye a woman of contradictions. Just as it explores her willful blindness to Jim’s fraudulent behaviour, and struggles with addiction, the doc emphasizes her openness and compassion as she invited members of the gay community onto her program. It gives her credit for using her platform to bring gay people onto the Christian show and address the AIDS epidemic at a time when many leaders, from the church to the White House, dismissed AIDS as a “gay disease.” Naturally, the patriarchy came calling, but the queers clearly took note as Tammy Faye broke from the course expected by her Christian audience and offered a message of love amid a culture of fear.

The 2000 documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato is a queer cult hit.

An Iconic Interview

These chapters of the doc highlight Tammy Faye in her prime. Her singing, her skills as a raconteur, her glitzy (gaudy?) fashion sense, lacquered nails, puffy hair, and iconic eye make-up arguably position her as a higher power for the church’s mission—but also as far from the “vow of poverty” typically associated with devoting oneself to the man upstairs. As Messner recalls the peak of her career in her captivating (if self-aware) interview, she looks to the positive work that she and her crooked ex-husband made with the show.

Messner’s interview with the filmmakers also illustrate her skill with the camera. She has giant eyes and knows how to use them, along with her trademark eyelashes, to endear herself to a viewer. Tammy Faye is also a little bit zany, veering unpredictably between heartfelt confessions (there are many tears!) and joyful memories (there are many highs!). Bailey and Barbato harness Tammy Faye’s flamboyant personality while portraying her fairly: she’s a victim, but partly one of her own undoing.

As a character, Tammy Faye is a larger than life figure. Her charismatic screen presence, effervescent personality, and idiosyncratic way with words—part Beverly Hills housewife, part Beverly Hillbilly—make the doc consistently humorous even when the story is full of heartache. It’s no wonder that Tammy Faye, who passed in 2007, continues to inspire audiences even when their comfort with the Catholic Church doesn’t age as gracefully.

Queering Tammy Faye

“With fabulousness and honesty, Tammy Faye’s religious background made her an unlikely object for this kind of adulation, but in many ways she had the classic profile of a gay icon,” wrote Michelle Tsai in Slate upon Messner’s passing. “Gay icons are often powerful women who are also marginalized and vulnerable.”

As noted by her flamboyancy, it’s appropriate that RuPaul likened Tammy Faye to a drag queen when he invited his long-time friend to appear on his talk show in the late 1990s. Bailey and Barbato match Tammy Faye’s emphasis on humour and play with an approach that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The film illustrates the power of queering a persona as it proudly takes ownership of Messner’s story as an out-and-proud riposte to the downfall she experienced at the hands of the church. (Her brothers in Christ come off as devilishly Machiavellian.)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is, to lift the name of one of RuPaul’s Drag Race challenges, “drag on a dime.” It’s unabashedly thrifty with its sock puppets and end of the millennium video. The style, however, brings Messner down to Earth and tries to find a more authentic representation of her life than the one she had on her multi-million dollar network. She wears it well. As RuPaul told Next magazine in 2016, his fascination with Messner drew from her relationship to the character Polyanna and her unflappable innocence. Explaining how Messner came to him in a dream, Charles says that the apparition of Tammy Faye said, “Ru, focus on people’s innocence rather than their guilt.” He added that Tammy Faye’s spirit, in both senses of the term, inspired him to embrace the complexities with which people live daily. “[S]he made a conscious decision to focus on the light which is really an elevated place to be,” he said.

The doc especially sees Messner empowered by the experience in its climactic sequence, in which the filmmakers afford her a tête-à-tête with author Charles E. Shepard, who wrote a damning account of the Bakkers’ business habits in The Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the Ptl Ministry. Shepard holds his ground about his duty to investigate fraud and corruption, but the encounter, taking a cue from the Michael Moore school of filmmaking, at least affords Messner agency by letting her question the journalist’s right to tell her story.

Compassion and Camp

Capturing Messner’s story with the right balance of compassion and camp, The Eyes of Tammy Faye does what the best character-driven documentaries do. The film observes its subject without being blinded by her. To their credit, Bailey and Barbato note the many parties who declined to be interviewed. They inject the doc with melodramatic cheese through their highly stylized presentations of each rejection letter. The sense of balance comes by telling a side of the story that the mainstream media omitted.

The film returns Bakker’s earlier compassion for the gay community by offering her a chance to share her perspective, just as she invited people onto The PTL Club to put a human face on the AIDS crisis when her own church called upon others to shut the door. When others abandoned Tammy Faye, Bailey, Barbato et all let the gay community empower her as she attempts to return to the spotlight. By confronting the imperfections that made her famous, the film inspired a generation of fans reared on RuPaul to immortalize Messner’s spirit and incomparable eyelashes through subsequent performances.

Snatch Game Success

Contestants reference Tammy Faye regularly on Drag Race, as does RuPaul himself with complete challenges made in homage to her TV evangelical dynasty. No catalogue of the great Tammy Faye takes is complete without the interpretation by the show’s early weirdo, Tammie Brown, on Season 1 of All Stars. Brown, decked out in Messner’s voluminous ’do but with sloppy eye make-up of which the televangelist would never approve, was eliminated following the celebrity impersonation challenge in which she channelled a mutation of RuPaul’s friend, complete with a rubber chicken and incoherent ramblings.

Drag Race redeemed her camp value in the second season of Drag Race: All Stars when Ginger Minj portrayed Tammy Faye in the Snatch Game challenge. As Ginger Minj turned on the waterworks and cried throughout a hilariously committed performance, she nailed the camp value of Tammy Faye as well as Bailey and Barbato did. Ginger rightfully lost the challenge to Alaska’s saucy take on Mae West, but channelled the same hot mess of emotions that endeared audiences to Tammy Faye in the doc. The joy of Ginger’s performance wasn’t so much her funny take on Tammy Faye, but in seeing RuPaul’s interaction with her and the sense that two generations of drag queens were channelling a shared passion in the queering of an unconventional icon.

Chastain, meanwhile, doesn’t look the part of Tammy Faye quite as well as Ginger Minj does, but she captures her spirit, just as the initial marketing for the film emphasizes the queer elements of the documentary. The target audience for Chastain’s film isn’t fans of PTL but RPDR. One can only anticipate the celebrity guest judge appearance on Snatch Game, and hopefully the new generation of audiences who can (re)discover The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the documentary, is available on DVD and VOD. The drama premieres at TIFF 2021 and opens September 17.