The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield
Writers: Abe Sylvia (Based on the documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato)
Director: Michael Showalter
Reviewed at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival
It’s no surprise that The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a devastatingly poignant portrait of Tammy Faye Bakker — the long-suffering, mascara-smeared wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker — begins with a painful closeup of the woman’s face.
The creases of age make a mockery of her once-desperate attempts to retain eternal youth through permanent eye and lip liner, seemingly applied with a blunt-edged Sharpie, that now give her the visage of the world’s saddest clown.
And yet she smiles with a sad warmth that almost makes those scars of cataclysmic cosmetic malpractice melt away. Almost, but not quite. For while the story of Tammy Faye Bakker must be told with sympathetic respect, there’s no wishing away the ugliness that followed her for most of her life.
Behind that makeup, can this really be Jessica Chastain, the take-no-prisoners poker maven of Molly’s Game…the super-cool CIA agent of Zero Dark Thirty? As Tammy Faye, Chastain cements her place as one of the great screen chameleons, taking on the veil of a vivacious woman damaged by a nightmare childhood; a social maverick who takes on the persona of a submissive wife to a powerful and influential man, yet who through it all manages to remain true to her convictions.
While recent generations may ask, “Tammy Who?,” for most of us the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is one of the great cautionary tales of the late 20th century. Starting with absolutely nothing but a pig puppet that Tammy had fashioned from a bath toy, the two began an itinerant Gospel ministry in the 1960s, traveling town to town, church to church, barely scraping together a living.
A chance encounter with pioneering televangelist Pat Robertson landed the Bakkers on his Christian television network, and before long they were by far the channel’s most popular performers — both on an afternoon children’s show and late at night on The 700 Club, a revolutionary program that adopted the trappings of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, complete with celebrity guests like Colonel Sanders and featuring Gospel invitations where Johnny would have slotted commercials for Alpo dog food. Besides serving as Jim’s ever-perky cohost, Tammy Faye became one of the most sought-after Christian recording artists in the country. The pair even opened the nation’s first Christian theme park.
But big success brought big money — and with that came big trouble for Jim, whose dreams of ministry grandeur always slightly outpaced his ability to pay for it. Investigations ensued — including the revelation that Bakker used ministry money to buy the silence of an ex-lover. Jim got imprisoned, Tammy got a divorce.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye traces that oft-told tale (and if it’s just the facts you want, by all means check out the 2000 documentary of the same name). But upon that framework, screenwriter Abe Sylvia (TV’s Nurse Jackie) and director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) have layered a fable colored in unexpected shades of empathy. We suspect going in that the film will side with Tammy, and indeed she is portrayed as a woman swimming against the tides of corruption and oppression. But there’s a surprising amount of sympathy for Jim here, too — a simple man, preaching a simple faith, who deludes himself into believing that while the Bible is, indeed, the unerring word of God, there is still a bit of wiggle room when it comes to serving both God and mammon.
To the wonderful Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) falls the challenge of playing Jim Bakker not as a ruthless hypocrite but a man flailing to succeed in both religion and the business of religion — a preacher so obsessed with avoiding sin that, when he inevitably fails to meet his own moral standards, swirls into an abyss of criminal denial. Garfield is masterful in the role. Even if the early Jim is an annoyingly goofy, childlike naïf, we spend much of the film willing him to return to that golden age, when his life was happy and his faith unblemished.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye could easily have been mounted as a screed against the hypocrisy of Christianity, and of faith in general. But Showalter and Sylvia have sidestepped that trap. In fact, Tammy Faye is relentlessly respectful when it comes to faith — it’s religion, and the seemingly irresistible human compulsion to utilize it as a cudgel of control, that the filmmakers can’t stand. As a child, Tammy Faye’s fundamentalist parents won’t let her even set foot in the family’s church because she was conceived with a man other than her mother’s husband. At Bible college, dancing in the quad (one of the film’s loveliest scenes) is grounds for expulsion. During lunch at Pat Robertson’s mansion, Tammy Faye’s insistence on sitting at the “men’s table” nearly crushes Jim’s career before it gets started.
Through it all, Tammy Faye struggles to work out her faith in this environment, stubbornly pursuing her quest to demonstrate Christian love in a culture of exclusion and power-wielding. The last straw comes at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1985, when on her Tammy’s House Party show she invited Steve Pieters — a gay California pastor afflicted with HIV — to speak about the epidemic and explain to the show’s millions of viewers how a man could be both gay and Christian (The film’s depiction of the interview is striking — the actual one, available on YouTube, is breathtaking).
One thing I noticed at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered: Nearly half of the two-dozen-odd films I saw there had, as their opening shot, a close-up of a human face. Sometimes it was a whole face, more often just a mouth or an ear or an eye. It’s perhaps no accident: After well over a year of keeping our distance from fellow human beings, there’s a sort of catharsis in getting that close — close enough to discern the pores of a face — with an image that’s the size of a small house.
In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, that initial, uncomfortably intimate image sticks with us until the end. And while few of us may have the makeup to match, we can still see in those dark, sad eyes a reflection of our own, often failed, dream to be better than the world is willing to allow.
Featured image: Scene from The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Toronto International Film Festival)
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