Growing up I remember the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker PTL scandals dominating the news cycles. It came in an era when several popular televangelists were coming under great scrutiny for their mismanagement of parishioner donated funds, and their sexual activities which deviated from their own preaching. The fall of Jim and Tammy Faye was especially fascinating as they were the power couple of televangelists. Their television programs were as iconic as the way Tammy Faye wore her makeup.
A trademark of her persona, it should not come as a surprise that Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens with a conversation about Tammy Faye’s (Jessica Chastain) makeup. Starting with a close-up of her eyes, Showalter makes it clear whose view his film will be told from.
Fascinated with religion from a young age, the film shows that Tammy Faye’s faith was partly forged by its forbidden fruit allure. The only child from her mother’s previous marriage, in a religious community that viewed divorce as a sin, Tammy Faye was shunned from attending the local church where her mother was the organist. Unwilling to be deterred, she discovered quickly that the performance of being moved by the spirit, even if it means pretending to speak in tongues, was just as powerful to other as the words being preached from the pulpit. It was not long after that she would attend bible college where she met, and eventually married, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield).
In documenting the couple’s rise from traveling preachers to getting a break on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) televised ministry, Showalter establishes just how influential Tammy Faye was in motivating Jim to reach his full potential. While he was afraid to cross evangelical powerhouses like Robertson and Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio), she always knew that they were meant for bigger things.
It is when the Bakkers commence their meteoric rise after the launch of the PTL Club series, their own answer to 700 Club which Jim once hosted, that The Eyes of Tammy Faye becomes rather problematic. In the film’s selective rewriting of history, Tammy Faye is presented as a woman who was both instrumental in the success of their ministry and a champion for the marginalized voices, such as the LGBT community, often shunned by the evangelical community. However, Showalter also wants one to believe that she was blissfully unaware of how Jim was getting the money for the various projects.
Unfortunately, Jessica Chastain’s turn as Tammy Faye inadvertently contradicts this line of thought at every turn. Chastain’s sensational performance not only brings a level of humanity to the character, but also shows that Tammy Faye was too smart to be painted this dumb. It becomes increasingly hard to believe that a woman so good at reading people would have no clue what Jim was up to from a business perspective. After all this was the man who frequently turned their personal strife, even it if came at the expense of her embarrassment, into fundraising opportunities.
By only focusing on Tammy Faye’s view, the film struggles with how to juggle the many scandals that Jim finds himself in over the course of their marriage. One gets a glimpse of Jim’s ego, and hints at his various dalliances, but the scandals never hit as hard as they should since Tammy Faye is always kept at a distance. This also makes it difficult for Showalter to settle on a proper tone for the film.
Drifting between serious biopic and campy satire, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a scattered snapshot of the famed televangelist’s life. One where the truth always feels concealed by a pious façade. Even when she is tempted by another man, it is framed in a way where it immediately evokes sympathy. Rarely do her own flaws go beyond her desire to stay loyal to a husband who she once deeply loved.
As a result, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is nothing more than an attempt to reframe the legacy of Tammy Faye. One that completely ignores the generations of problematic televangelists that she and Jim helped to birth.