The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

MICHAEL SHOWALTER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

/USA, 2021. , , , , . Screenplay by , based on the documentary by , . Cinematography by . Produced by , , , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by , .

The height of popularity of televangelists in the eighties was accompanied by scandals that brought many of them down, making household names of the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, whose charismatic personalities brought souls to Jesus on the small screen but whose followers felt betrayed by the secrets of their leaders’ less than perfect private lives. Tammy Faye’s journey from singing television hostess to national news joke, then later her rebranding as a beloved camp icon, was covered by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato in their popular documentary Eyes of Tammy Faye, which has now been turned into a feature film by Michael Showalter and writer Abe Sylvia. Showalter’s 2015 comedy Hello My Name Is Doris, in which he suggested that he thinks older women are disgusting, doesn’t bode well for a sympathetic telling of Tammy Faye’s story but, surprisingly, he is very generous in his presentation of her plight, a naïve woman whose religious faith was admirable but whose inability to see people clearly was her downfall. It helps that , who herself has always struggled to endear herself to her audience, even those who admire her coldly calculated precision, gives her first truly loveable performance as a woman who turns to self-destruction when disappointed by a husband (played by an equally compelling as the milquetoast Jim) overwhelmed with his own hubris, both of them almost childlike in their belief that God has called them to become rich on sharing his word.

We begin with the origins of the couple’s relationship, meeting at Christian college before hitting the road preaching the gospel from town to town, her rough childhood with an emotionally constrained mother (Cherry Jones, of course) making Tammy Faye anxious to earn adoration from others, and Jim, for his own reasons, seems to constantly need the same. Believing that the word of God should be expressed through joy and not judgment, the Bakkers, self-styled “charismatics”, eventually find success on Pat Robertson’s Christian Network where they help create The 700 Club, before realizing that to gain any respect from the likes of Robertson or the heavy-handed Jerry Falwell (), they will need to strike out on their own. The result is the PTL (Praise the Lord) network, which earns hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade, includes the creation of a Christian-themed amusement park (Heritage USA) and sees Bakker accompanying every sermon, personal anecdote and event in the headlines with a plea made directly to camera that the viewer send in a donation.

Unfortunately, the Bakkers are better at dreaming up their fantasy than administering it in reality, and Jim’s poor lifelong track record with finances is always dogging at their heels, beginning with missed car payments in their early years, to later tax troubles with a government that doesn’t understand why a theme park can hold the same exemptions as a church, and projects he is constantly conceiving that are always in the red. Tammy Faye spends lavishly on her home and wardrobe but increasingly despondent about her husband’s distancing himself from her, which results in a muted affair with a music producer (played by Midland front man ) and a near-fatal addiction to opioids. The couple’s private woes become public, first with the revelation of Bakker’s affair/possible rape of Jessica Hahn, then with the news of his using PTL’s funds to silence Hahn which lands him in court and, eventually, prison. Showalter gets through all this plot with admirable efficiency, years of the protagonists’ lives are covered in little more than two hours, using clean and comprehensible back and forth movements in time and a few handy montage sequences to really get as much content in under the wire. The straight lines of the film’s presentation, actually, work against its quality and not for it, it comes off as a prestige television film with an award-bait performance by its lead, not the investigation of culture and economics that is represented by this complicated, fascinating story. The American habit of commodifying everything under the sun includes religion, and the crowds clamouring to give the Bakkers their cash seemed to think nothing of the couple’s turning what’s supposed to be an anti-materialistic religion into such great profits; it’s not until the people selling Jesus to the masses like a McDonald’s burger turn out to be themselves sinners that anyone raises any objection to their success.

Then there’s the very nature of the Bakkers’ preaching, which is also not given enough consideration, Jim’s Make A Joyful Noise attitude becomes unpopular as the eighties arrive with the terrifying realities of AIDS, Reaganomics and the Cold War, making way for the likes of Falwell’s Fire and Brimstone mentality, which comforts those feeling left out of all cultural progress with approval of their antiquated ways (in the current absence of popular televangelists it was Donald Trump who stepped in and did the same in more recent years). The conflict between Bakker and Falwell isn’t helped by Tammy Faye, who pleads tolerance for the LGBT community on television and tells her followers that AIDS patients are not being punished for their sins, something she does with touching sincerity in one of the film’s best scenes; nothing has ever been proven, but both this film and the less prestigious 1990 television film Fallen From Grace, in which a surprisingly non-mascara’ed Bernadette Peters played Tammy Faye, leave room for the theory that Bakker was sabotaged by enemies who didn’t find the Bakkers’ humane views of humanity wholesome enough. Falwell ends their feud by taking over PTL’s businesses after the Bakkers’ downfall and joyfully runs them into the ground (the casting of D’Onofrio in the role is so satisfying, as he plays him with no limit to his self-righteous venom) and there is the hint that Mrs. Bakker, the only wife of a televangelist who ever became as famous as her husband, was aware of Falwell’s treachery while her husband blindly followed anyone who would help dig him out of his hole (it’s likely that this film and the TV movie before it were too fearful of lawsuits to state this outright).

Chastain performs all the acrobatic tricks required of someone doing the age old biopic routine, she captures the giggly laugh and her makeup team spare no expense recreating Tammy Faye’s iconic look, but there’s more to her performance than just the motions: the giggle is situated within the character’s insecurity, the makeup is her desperation to be adored, Chastain gives us all her vulnerability without wearing us out, and leaves us with a very tender feeling for a woman who just wasn’t sharp or cruel enough to survive the good Christian souls that surrounded her.

Toronto International Film Festival: 2021

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