The excess and colorful bombast of the 1980’s wasn’t just relegated to MTV and action movies; it spread its glittering wings across all media platforms, including the weird world of televangelism. At the time, the ultimate representation of crazy Jesus-worship and Reaganomics gone awry was the makeup-slathered Tammy Faye Bakker and her squirrelly, sweater-donning husband, Jim Bakker. Together, this eccentric couple built a multi-million-dollar TV empire, which crumbled to the ground due to Jim’s embezzlement of funds and sex scandal cover-ups. After their downfall, he ended up serving eight years in federal prison while Tammy Faye became overnight tabloid fodder and a public joke, eventually struggling with obscurity and impoverishment.
With her glittery makeup, thick mascara and spidery eyelashes, Tammy Faye was an easy target from the beginning, even before she publicly paid for the sins of her husband. Like 2017’s I, Tonya, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (based on the documentary of the same title) attempts to reexamine our fascination with and condemnation of, a bizarre, brazen and undeniably unique public figure.
If you’re looking for a profound treatise on religion and politics, you came to the wrong place. If that’s what you enjoy, there are plenty of Oliver Stone movies streaming right now. Director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) approaches his subject differently, with a mixture of classic vintage tragedy and pure camp. It’s revisionist history filtered through a John Waters-like sensibility. What did you expect from the co-writer of Wet Hot American Summer? It’s a damn fun movie and the tale of Tammy (Jessica Chastain) and Jim (Andrew Garfield) is told with such biting satire and unexpected emotion, you can’t help but enjoy it. That’s not to say Showalter doesn’t address issues like religious hypocrisy and blind faith; he does, but he presents them in a refreshingly jaunty tone.
We first meet Tammy Faye Messner as a young girl in International Falls, Minnesota in 1952. From the beginning, it’s obvious that she’s wholly passionate about Christianity. One day she collapses in church, writhes on the ground and speaks in tongues, to her mother’s dismay (she berates her for “performing”). What her mother doesn’t understand is that performance and faith are the same thing to Tammy Faye.
Later, Tammy Faye meets Bakker in Bible college. She’s a pretty and earnest student who believes in God’s everlasting love. Jim is awkward and goofy. He only exudes confidence when he preaches his message that faith and money shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. The two fall in love and take their brand of Pentecostal preaching on the road where they use homemade puppets to entertain parishioners. Tammy Faye and Jim eventually land a show on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club television network. They also meet the dark horse of religion, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio in an ominous, gruff performance), who helps them at first, but eventually has a hand in destroying them. With his backing, the Bakkers create the PTL (Praise The Lord) Club, which dropped them into every living room in America.
In the 70’s and 80’s , The Jim and Tammy Show had millions of fans and thrust the enigmatic duo into the national spotlight. Jim continued preaching sermons about the importance of wealth in faith, which he eventually used to rip off millions of viewers, while Tammy espoused her compassion for people in need. Her agenda of unmitigated love culminates in a scene where she interviews a gay preacher who’s been diagnosed with HIV. This was an incredibly daring act at a time when the gay community was maligned, especially by the church. This might be a reason Tammy Faye is still a star in the LGBTQ community… besides her outlandish fashion, of course.
The movie is not without issues. The Bakkers’ demise feels rushed. You wish Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia dug a little deeper into the details of the controversy instead of flashing newsreels. You also never really get to know Tammy on a very profound level. We never get a sense of what motivated her. Still, the film has an exciting, vibrant pace and is altogether hilarious, entertaining and dramatic without ever feeling off-kilter.
The real reason to see The Eyes of Tammy Faye is Jessica Chastain. Andrew Garfield gives a hilariously oddball turn as Jim, but Chastain is a multilayered spectacle of genuine glee and hidden anxiety. Behind her Betty Boop giggle, painted eyes and widened smile, hides a scared little girl who slaved for her mother’s approval but never received it. Her desire for love developed an insatiable need to please everyone, accept herself. Chastain’s Tammy Faye might be consistently sipping Diet Cokes and snickering nervously, but her performance is grounded in a deep-seated loneliness. It’s an endearing take that allows Tammy Faye’s message of compassion and love for your fellow man to shine through. In Tammy’s eyes, that’s real faith. It’s too bad the world couldn’t return the favor when she needed it most.