With Tammy Faye it was always about the eyes.
The very first thing Tammy did on the very first day of filming 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, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. It was such an arresting – almost ghoulish – thing to do, to put on your dead mother’s glasses. Yet in that moment she 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 Crash there’s some mournful voiceover about how our lives are isolated by Auto Glass; car windscreens, television screens, computer screens. Rather than seeing this as a prescription for melancholy and loneliness Tammy saw the Screen Age 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 star genes. Growing up in nowheresville, Hollywood was defintely not calling. She was tiny. Okay, 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 her mascara tattoed on, Tammy made those eyes pop. Years before Andy got around to it Tammy Faye painted her face like Warhol’s Marilyn, and the impact was no less memorable. Using eyeshadow she gave herself metaphorical sunglasses that would make Elton John blush, putting bold quotation marks round the most powerful weapons she had.
It was a look that was perfect for television, which back then was an emergent trashy medium that no one really respected: “I still am big – its the pictures that got small” Gloria Swanson moaned at the end of Sunset Boulevard. What spelt disaster for the dinosaurs of Hollywood was good news for tiny Tammy who – along with sweetheart husband Jim – hijacked the medium of television in its infancy.
They pioneered the kind of come-into-our-living-room cosycasting 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 in return for the promise of salvation, etc… 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 their head examined. This actually makes home shopping and televangelism the purest and most honest forms of the medium because they just want your money and ain’t afraid to say it.
Jim and Tammy, however, 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 seem like one big houseparty. And it wasn’t just an empty promise made in the television studio. They extended the experience by building around that same 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. Unfortunately this was not the kind of success story that could be allowed to go unchallenged. Even if their supposed excesses seem a little paltry compared to those of today’s rap stars and hedgefund hogs, the furs and gold-plated taps did not go unnoticed. This was the big eighties, remember… this was our first brush with bling, our first contact with cashmere as the fabric of our lives. Populuxe was a thrilling possibility, not the tedious reality it has become. So there was a need for expiation, for a scapegoat. Wall Street found its righteous zealot in Rudolph Guiliani 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, deftly destroying their reputations in the process…
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 is 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 documenting her battle with Cancer) and One Punk Under God 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 still called Larry King and asked him to interview her. She looked dreadful. But she still had the eyes, not because the lashes were superglued 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.