Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eyes Wide Shut

Kubrick's film title never made any sense to me, but the phrase is apropos as a tribute to the Wide Eyes of Tammy Faye Messner.

We shall miss her clear view of the meaning of Christian love and kindness. She became a champion to Gays because she refused to judge others as Falwell and other fundamentalists did. Her outcast position after the fall of husband and partner Jim Bakker, allowed her to see what it is like to be the object of scorn and derision.

Her books and the film illustrated here are testimony to her open mind and to her struggles, first with the collapse of the PTL Club, and then, more mortally, with cancer.

Below, I include Salon's and
SOVO's comprehensive tributes to a remarkable Humanist:

We're still watching, Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye Messner was such a genius at come-into-my-living-room TV that she spent even her final moments working the camera.

By Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato

Jul. 25, 2007 | With Tammy Faye it was always about the eyes.

The very first thing Tammy did on the very first day of filming "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," the documentary we made about her, was show us her dead mother's glasses on her coffee table. She liked to keep them around, she said, to remind her how she saw things. And then, with the cameras rolling, she put them on.

In that moment we knew -- as did she -- that this would be the opening of our film. It was such an arresting, almost ghoulish thing to do, to put on your dead mother's glasses. Yet it reminded us that we all have different points of view because we are all looking through different lenses. And no matter how differently we see things, no matter how we may judge people accordingly, it's all temporary anyway.

In the opening of the movie "Crash," there's some mournful voice-over about how our lives are isolated by glass: car windscreens, television screens, computer screens. Rather than seeing this as a prescription for melancholy and loneliness, Tammy saw the screen as an opportunity to make a connection and determined to put herself in front of the eye of the camera.

Amazing really, because Tammy didn't have a lot to work with. She didn't have the genes of stardom. She grew up in Nowheresville, and Hollywood was definitely not calling. She was tiny. OK, so Hollywood could always forgive the vertically challenged as long as they had the eyes. But Tammy hardly had any eyes at all, just two tiny raisins bordered with some stumpy eyelashes.

Almost half a century before club kid and "Freak Show" author James St. James pronounced, "If you've got a hump back throw a little glitter on it, honey," she did just that; with false eyelashes glued on and mascara tattooed on, Tammy made her eyes pop. Years before Andy got around to it, Tammy painted her face like Warhol's Marilyn, and the impact was no less memorable. She gave herself a pair of abstract sunglasses that would make Elton John blush, putting bold quotation marks around the most powerful weapons she had.

It was a look that was perfect for television, an emergent trashy medium that no one really respected back then. "I still am big -- it's the pictures that got small," Gloria Swanson moaned at the end of "Sunset Boulevard." What spelled disaster for the dinosaurs of Hollywood was good news for tiny Tammy, who -- along with her sweetheart husband, Jim Bakker -- hijacked the medium of television in its infancy.

They pioneered the kind of come-into-our-living-room cozy casting that has become the staple of morning TV. And together they spoke the language of television so fluently, so effortlessly and so incessantly that suddenly they had a hugely successful ministry on their hands.

The televangelism thing gets a lot of people worked up: Poor widows sending in money they can't afford to spend in return for ... what? The fact is that television has always been a completely commercial medium, and anyone who thinks there is a safe divide -- or any divide at all -- between commercials and content needs his or her head examined. This actually makes home shopping and televangelism the purest and most honest forms of the medium: They just want your money.

But Jim and Tammy were happy to give something in return. While most televangelists used divisiveness and fear as their pitch (if you don't send money now you'll burn in hell and be overrun by commies and fags), Jim and Tammy made it all seem like one big house party. And it wasn't just a hypocritical construct limited to the television studio. They extended the experience by building around the studio an actual theme park and holiday camp. Instead of burning in the fires of hell, you could take a ride down the water flume. And everyone was welcome -- even the commies and the gays -- to come on down. People flocked in droves. Do not underestimate how revolutionary this "come one, come all" approach was among Christian circles. It was heresy.

But it was such fun, and Jim and Tammy Faye lived the high life. Even if their supposed excesses seem a little paltry compared with those of today's rap stars and hedge fund hogs, the furs and gold-plated taps did not go unnoticed. This was the big '80s -- our first brush with bling, our first contact with cashmere as the fabric of our lives -- so there was a need for expiation, for a scapegoat. Wall Street found its righteous zealot in Rudolph Giuliani, who puffed an insider-trading scandal into an overblown crusade to build his political career. And the Christian community had Jerry Falwell, who cunningly managed to steal Jim and Tammy's ministry right out from under their noses. In the end Jim and Tammy lost everything. Jim went to prison on fraud and conspiracy charges and Tammy went into exile in the desert.

But all that is really just a sideshow when it comes to understanding Tammy Faye's legacy. She loved to touch people and, in the age of mass media, she knew that the best way to do that was through the lens of a camera.

In "The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show" (a sadly short-lived syndicated show), "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," "The Surreal Life," "Tammy Faye: Death Defying" (a film Tammy asked us to make in 2005 documenting her battle with cancer that aired on We) and "One Punk Under God" (the TV series we produced about Tammy Faye's son, Jay), she continued to speak the language of television with a virtuosity that was quite simply pure genius.

Heroically, she kept on doing it right up until hours before her death. Even with a face ravaged by cancer, she called Larry King and asked him to interview her. She looked dreadful. But she still had the eyes, not because the lashes were super-glued and the mascara tattooed, but because she always knew it was all about the eyes. And she knew -- as we all should know by now -- that the most important eye of all is the eye of the camera lens.

Tammy Faye remembered for gay-friendly beliefs

Former televangelist became pop culture icon


The gay community — and gay men especially — lost a dearly loved comrade when Tammy Faye Bakker Messner died at age 65 on July 20 at her home in Kansas City, Mo.

The former televangelist, who built a religious empire with her former husband Jim Bakker, reached out unabashedly to gays in a way that remains unprecedented for fundamentalist Christians.

Tammy Faye Bakker Messner speaks at Capital Pride on June 9, 2002 in this Blade file photo. Tammy Faye came to be revered by gay men for her larger-than-life persona and her acceptance of them, which was unprecedented for a nationally known fundamentalist Christian. (Blade file photo by Michael Wise)

The Bakkers’ story has been widely documented. The young Jim and Tammy Faye, who met at a Minneapolis Bible college, married in 1961 and had a hand in building three religious television powerhouses: they were the original hosts of “The 700 Club” on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, they co-founded Trinity Broadcasting Network with Paul and Jan Crouch and ran their own PTL (“Praise the Lord”) Club from 1976 to 1987.

Tammy Faye became popular with viewers for her slightly ditzy, yet endlessly empathetic, onscreen persona. She and Jim had a puppet ministry for children and authored several inspirational books under the PTL umbrella. Tammy Faye became known for her singing, which she did on TV and on several PTL-produced albums such as “We’re Blest” (1979), “Tammy Sings the Old Hymns” (1982), “Don’t Give Up” (1985) and “Enough is Enough” (1986), the jacket of which showed her posing sassily with a paintbrush.

Some have joked that was the instrument she used to apply her heavy mascara, which became Tammy Faye’s trademark. It was applied with an increasingly heavy touch as the years went by. Her on-air tears, which were shed copiously, often smudged her makeup providing an unintended camp quotient to the proceedings. Jan Hooks famously parodied Tammy Faye on “Saturday Night Live.”

Some have accused TBN's Jan Crouch of copying Tammy Faye’s schtick with big wigs, drag queen makeup and oceans of tears, but Tammy Faye said she considered Jan a friend despite some years of animosity. Many have commented on what they say has been Tammy Faye’s endless capacity for forgiveness.

Scandal rocked PTL in the late ’80s when it was revealed that Jim Bakker had bilked donors out of millions and had an affair with church secretary-turned-Playboy bunny Jessica Hahn. The Bakkers were widely criticized for the opulent lifestyle and became symbolic both of ’80s greed and high-profile hypocrisy among televangelists.

Tammy Faye, though, who was never charged with any wrongdoing (Jim spent five years in prison), seemed immune to public disapproval after the initial sting of the scandal. Few faulted her for divorcing Jim while he was in jail in 1992 and Tammy Faye enjoyed far more popularity than her ex in recent years. The two remained close until Tammy Faye’s death. In 1996, she married Roe Messner, who built the Bakker’s Christian theme park Heritage USA.

Tammy Faye’s gay-friendly roots go back to 1985 when she became the first televangelist to have a gay man with AIDS on her religious PTL show “Tammy’s House Party.” Rev. Steve Pieters, who has lived with AIDS for more than 20 years and is now a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, remembers his guest appearance and Tammy Faye fondly.

“She was incredibly sweet and affirming,” Pieters said. “She asked some fairly silly questions, like, ‘Are you sure you’ve given girls a fair chance?’ but you have to understand for her audience, those kinds of questions gave me a chance to explain what it was like to be a gay man with AIDS.”

Pieters said Tammy Faye’s decision to have him on the show was groundbreaking especially considering the time.

“I’ll never forget one of the things she said was that we should be loving and accepting just like Jesus and that was a very radical statement for a fundamentalist Christian to make.”

Tammy Faye endeared herself to Washington gays in 2002 when she was one of the guest celebs for that year’s Capital Pride. Tammy Faye had, by that time, made a comeback of sorts through the documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” narrated by Ru Paul. It became a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and a cult favorite among gay men.

“She was ecstatic and thrilled (to appear),” said Robert York, who directed Capital Pride from 1999 to 2005. “She agreed to everything we asked her to do and was just great about it.”

Tammy Faye spent three days in the city and judged a Tammy Faye look-alike contest at Cobalt, spoke at the Capital Pride Festival and appeared at a fundraiser dinner for the event at the home of local gay activist Rob Morris. York, who grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination, said Tammy Faye’s appearance at the dinner was especially memorable for him because he grew up watching her on TV.

“At one point she sat down at the piano and sang, ‘Amazing Grace,’” York said. “It was really one of those moments where I looked at her and thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ I’m so glad she came and so glad we had the chance to welcome her here with open arms.”

Tammy Faye’s Capital Pride appearance did draw some criticism. Barry Freiman wrote an editorial in the next week’s Blade arguing that Tammy Faye was a “superficial” choice.

And at other times Tammy Faye made conflicting statements about gays, drawing the ire of some.

In a 2003 interview, Tammy Faye admitted she thought homosexual activity is sinful but said it’s “no worse than any other sin; I’d rather talk to a homosexual than a liar or a cheat.”

On other occasions, Tammy Faye wholeheartedly embraced gays.

“I say everybody must be who they are,” she told RuPaul during an appearance on the drag queen’s VH1 talk show in the ’90s. “Young people, don’t ever let anybody make you something that you’re not. You have the right to be who you are.”

When pressed on the issue by the religious press in a 2006 interview, Tammy Faye said, “The Bible says ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ Our lives are supposed to be hospitals, not courtrooms. Religious people today are courts and juries. When it comes down to it, Jesus died on the cross so that we could learn to love others like we love ourselves, not judge them or persecute them …”

In the same interview, Tammy Faye said her heart went out to gays when she first learned of the AIDS epidemic and said the gay community supported her — financially even in some cases — when “no one else would even speak to me. I will love them forever.”

Tammy Faye’s television career surged in the last 10 years of her life though illness sometimes prevented her from regular work.

Among highlights:

• In 1996 she co-hosted a talk show called “The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show” with openly gay actor Jim J. Bullock, though colon cancer, from which she went into remission, forced her to quit. The show was canceled soon after.

• She made a cameo on “The Drew Carey Show” as Mimi Bobek’s (Kathy Kinney) mother. Mimi, too, was known for her heavy eye makeup, though she favored eye shadow over Tammy Faye's eyeliner, which she eventually had tattoed on. Tammy Faye's mascara was so thick at times that it resulted in a tarantula-like effect.

• Tammy Faye guested on “Roseanne” as a makeup expert at a spa.

• In 2004, she appeared on the second season of the VH1 reality show “The Surreal Life” with Ron Jeremy, Vanilla Ice, Erik Estrada and others. The cast accepted Tammy Faye as a den mother of sorts and she called the experience one of the highlights of her life.

• Following the success of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (1999), “Tammy Faye: Death Defying” aired on cable in 2004.

• Tammy Faye wrote three autobiographies: “I Gotta Be Me” (1978), “Tammy: Telling it My Way” (1996) and “I Will Survive …. And You Will, Too!” (2003).

• Two stage productions have celebrated her persona: “Big Tent: the Tammy Faye Bakker Musical,” an off-Broadway show, and “The Gospel According to Tammy Faye,” which was playing in Houston at the time of her death.

Tammy Faye’s cancer returned in 2004, was gone by the end of that year, but returned again in July, 2005 and eventually spread to her lungs, though she was not a smoker. Several appearances on “Larry King Live” kept the public updated on her health.

She appeared on the show last week in her final TV appearance looking frail and gaunt, but still wearing heavy makeup. To the end, she affirmed her love of gays, praising their support on her last Larry King interview.

Rev. Randy McCain, an openly gay minister from Open Door Community Church in Sherwood, Ark., conducted a private funeral service on July 21. Tammy Faye’s ashes were buried the same day in Kansas.

Plans are being made for a public memorial service.

Jim and Tammy Faye’s two children each followed in their mother’s footsteps to some degree. Daughter Tammy Sue Bakker Chapman tried a singing career and favored her mother’s penchant for extreme eyeliner. Son Jay, whose religious ministry has been documented on the Sundance miniseries “One Punk Under God,” has said, “This sounds so churchy, but I felt like God spoke to my heart and said (homosexuality) is not a sin.”

God Bless Tammy Faye...


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