For most people, the name “Tammy Faye Bakker” is synonymous with garish makeup and overdone outfits; the flashier half of a pair of crooks who exploited millions of faithful worshipers in Jesus name.
But what if, beneath Betty Boop’s false eyelashes and voice, there was a misunderstood and lonely woman who “just wanted to love people” – but found herself swept up in scandal?
That’s the narrative featured in Searchlight’s “Tammy Faye’s Eyes,” which hits theaters on September 17th. Directed by veteran actor and comedian Michael Showalter, the colorful biopic stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as her husband, controversial televangelist Jim Bakker. Rated PG-13, the film features sexual content, drug use, and crude jokes.
The film opens with Tammy Faye as a young girl in rural Minnesota. The eldest of eight children, Tammy Faye is the only one born in the first marriage of her mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones). As a result, Tammy Faye’s mother does not allow her to set foot in a church for fear that worshipers will avoid the whole family due to the shame of the divorce.
But determined to be “saved,” Tammy Faye sneaks into the church and begins speaking in tongues – an act that strengthens her resolve to enter the ministry.
Fast forward a decade, and Tammy Faye attends Bible College. There, she meets an energetic young student named Jim Bakker, who presents engaging ideas about the Bible.
“God doesn’t want people to be poor,” a young Jim tells his class, horrifying his teacher who points out that the Bible also says “bless the poor”. Nonetheless, Tammy Faye is thrilled by Jim and, united by their shared vision of evangelism, the two get married and begin their ministry – a traveling puppet show.
It is a difficult vocation. The Bakkers struggle to make ends meet and end up losing their car due to unpaid bills. But by chance, they meet a producer for televangelist Pat Robertson, host of The Christian Broadcasting Network. He invites the Bakkers to the studio, convinced his boss won’t give a damn about them.
The producer is right, and the rest is fuzzy. After a brief stint as puppeteers, Jim convinces Pat to give him his own late-night show, resulting in the “700 Club” still in operation. Eventually, the Bakkers created the Praise the Lord (PTL) network and studios in North Carolina. They are building a Christian theme park, Heritage USA, a “Christian version of Disneyland”. As Jim builds his empire, Tammy Faye fulfills her dream of hosting her own show by singing, recording and performing positive songs like “You Can Make it!” and “Blessed”.
But as astounding as the Bakkers’ meteoric rise to success was, their fall was even more seismic.
In 1987 Jim was accused of using ministry funds as secret money for a woman, Jessica Hahn, with whom he had a one-night stand. Two years later, he was convicted of fraud on fundraising for their business despite maintaining his innocence. While Jim is in prison, Tammy Faye files for divorce.
In the aftermath of the scandal, the Bakkers found themselves without resources. The last part of the film features Tammy Faye in the 90s, alone in a small apartment with her dog. Wearing her signature eyelashes and brilliantly manicured nails, she wonders if she should respond to an invitation to sing at a Christian college. The Church, she thinks, has almost abandoned her.
On the surface, Tammy Faye is seemingly upbeat as her world falls apart. In one scene, she sings an upbeat song with enthusiasm moments before her husband joins her scene to ask for more money from supporters – they are persecuted by those who do not want the good news of the gospel to be broadcast, he says. His public. The money, of course, is coming.
But offscreen, she struggles with feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. Increasingly neglected by her husband, she has an affair with a producer – a sin Jim forces her to confess live on television. Realizing that she no longer knows the man she married, she overdoses on prescription drugs.
Chastain, in heavy prosthetics, plays excellent Tammy Faye, with a high-pitched laugh and a Midwestern accent. His versions of “Don’t Give Up” and “Blest” are perfect, with exaggerated syllables. In turn, Garfield is a convincing Jim, describing his passage from a young bible student tying to a calculated con artist.
Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, the film strives to humanize Tammy Faye, who died in 2007. It asks viewers to both empathize and understand a woman regularly satirized by the media, and he succeeds.
As the film progresses through the decades, Tammy Faye’s makeup becomes heavier and more cartoonish. The film’s metaphor is clear: The more Tammy Faye’s life collapses, the more she hides her true self, her feelings and her identity.
It also highlights the fact that Tammy Faye has always been something unsuitable in the evangelical world. She hosts frivolous segments on penile implants, baking, and cupcake decorating. She interviews a gay pastor with AIDS. She is ruffling the feathers of her conservative peers, calling for acceptance from the LGBT community and even training with Jerry Falwell Sr. – who is described as some sort of homophobe – on the issue.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a captivating biopic, rich in drama and scandal. However, problematically, Tammy Faye’s brand of Christianity – which claims to accept, love and humanize all individuals – is described as true Christianity. It is presented in stark contrast to both the selfish “health and wealth” gospel preached by her husband and the religious right-wing movement that Falwell and Robertson promote.
But although her version of Christianity fulfills Jesus’ command in Mark 12, she fails to recognize mankind’s fallen state and desperate need for a Savior, nor the redemption found in Christ alone. The film does not make fun of Christianity; it just doesn’t showcase the beauty and saving truths of the full gospel.
The Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker saga is a sobering reminder of how devastating a religion, founded on an incomplete gospel and warped by greed and power, can be.