THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)
An intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye stars Jessica Chastain (It: Chapter Two) and Andrew Garfield (Tick, Tick… BOOM!) as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, two self-styled Christian television personalities who took televangelism from local TV to international stardom.
It could’ve been so easy for Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) to play the rise of fall of these eccentric small-screen personalities for laughs. Instead, he gives Tammy Faye Bakker a dignified biopic that’s mostly played straight, and the rise and fall of this unusual married couple is a strong representation of how religion lost its way in the modern world.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye begins in 1960, when a young Jim and Tammy meet at Bible college. Jim’s already formed his act, showing the uptight Bible class how to take evangelism into the post-rock n’ roll world. He knows how to make people listen by becoming the centre of attention. Jim and the infatuated Tammy soon realise the world is moving on and Christianity needs to stop being so glum and punishing, and anyone who’s come across a contemporary TV preacher (or even an online conspiracy theorist) will see how much they influenced decades of shouty preachers and over-enthusiastic public speakers.
Tammy herself is a born performer, despite her pious mother (an underused Cherry Jones) asking her to simmer down. From a young age, it’s clear Tammy loves to make a scene and be noticed, so once Jim and Tammy marry they decide to share their love of God with the rest of the world. She makes a little puppet out of a Porky Pig bubble-bath cap and thus creates Susie Moppet, intended to teach kids how great the Lord is, and they soon join the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)—a fledging local operation run by Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), who hires them to do a children’s show and, later for Jim, a late-night talk show. Tammy soon realises she’s in the midst of a non-inclusive boy’s club, stuck as the voice of a puppet while her husband becomes a celebrity.
In a rather dizzyingly flash-forward, the Bakkers are suddenly an integral part of CBN’s religious TV empire, with their very own bright and shining entertainment show. Only it soon becomes a glittering cult, with accompanying albums and merchandise, but instead of passing a collection plate around, guilt-tripped fans are compelled to call in and donate their hard-earned cash. This act is almost presented as a musical, with Chastain using her vocals to deliver Tammy’s exaggerated religious bops.
As the ups and downs of their relationship plays out live on TV, Tammy’s second pregnancy and infidelity is used to raise even more funds. But, in the background, there are whispers that perhaps their behaviour isn’t that Holy. Jim is plagued by indecent scandals and the press aren’t impressed by their luxurious audience-funded lifestyle.
The specifics of the Bakkers’ downfall is only ever viewed from a distance. The film never divulges the fraud and misuse of funds Jim was later jailed over. The last act, where Tammy tries to find her feet post-divorce and post-scandal is a little over-simplified because of this. Audiences will probably feel compelled to Google what really happened to the couple once the credits roll.
Chastain goes all in as Tammy Faye, a woman who slowly transformed into a caricature of herself with big hair and racoon-eyed makeup. But even under facial prosthetics and heavy makeup, she gives a nuanced portrayal of the late icon. This biography is incredibly kind to the preacher, portraying her as one of the good guys, if not slightly deluded. She starts off as a Lucille Ball-esque housewife with a swirl of red hair, but being a housewife and stay-at-home mom isn’t the life for Tammy, who craves the same level of fame her husband is receiving. So she storms her way through a garden party to literally sit at the table with the male TV producers, she refused to ostracise the LBGTQ community (believing true Christianity was loving everyone no matter their preferences), and she even spoke to a man with AIDS on her show and became a lifelong ally. It’s because of these attitudes, which upset many producers and probably affected her career, that makes Bakker an icon in the gay community even today.
Garfield uses his natural charm to encapsulate Bakker’s allure. He’s creepily charming, like a Christian Mr Rogers, but with dark malice behind his eyes. But Tammy Faye’s personal story, thanks to a rather biased screenplay and Chastain’s powerhouse performance, overtakes this movie. Garfield’s nuanced performance thus gets pushed aside in favour of letting Chastain’s Tammy shine.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye also fails to explain exactly how terrible Jim Bakker is. It appears that one day Tammy overheard staff gossiping about his philandering ways and changed her opinion of him. It also fails to go into depth about how Jim used pledges for God to fund bogus schemes. This film pins all the blame on him, excusing Tammy’s hunger for fame and penchant for pricey clothing. It’s clear she’s too involved to be without blame, but Abe Sylvia’s script portrays her as too delusional and naïve to be totally guilty.
The contradiction of the Bakker’s makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye appear unfocused. It doesn’t help that four decades of their life is condensed into a two-hour film. Showalter glosses over their rise and fall, whizzing through the height of their popularity.
Sylvia has a lot of good ideas in his script, including commentary about the cult of celebrity, the rise of TV preachers, and how the Republican party and Christian broadcasters became political allies. Sadly, there isn’t a time for them to be an underlying current for audiences to catch the subtext. It’s noticeable that Sylvia is more accustomed to writing TV series like Nurse Jackie and Dead to Me, as the pacing seriously suffer in the final act.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye does restore the dignity of the late evangelist, who passed away in 2007, but it lacks the focus to help audiences truly understand how they ended up in such power and how they lost it almost as quickly. A passion project for Chastain, who acquired the rights to Tammy Faye Bakker’s life story in 2012, perhaps there’s a bit too much bias over this eccentric woman, who was far more complex than this biopic makes out.
USA | 2021 | 126 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Michael Showalter.
writers: Abe Sylvia (based on the book ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ by Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato).
starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones & Vincent D’Onofrio.