My grandmother used to faithfully watch televangelists on her flicking black-and-white TV. These televised preachers ranged from Jimmy Swaggart to John Hagee, Jerry Falwell to Billy James Hargis, Oral Roberts to Garner Ted Armstrong. She liked Pat Robertson’s 500 Club and Robert A. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. And, of course, she never missed one of the Billy Graham Crusades.
But her favorite was Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker – the baby-faced preacher and his overly-made-up wife who built one of the largest and most profitable ministries in the US. Their evangelical empire encompassed a Christian ministry, major theme park, and broadcasting network. Televising up to five programs a week, the Bakkers were hauling in over $1 million a week in viewer donations.
As Bakker said, “I believe that if Jesus were alive today, he would be on TV.”
Today, at 81, James Orsen Bakker is still carrying on his ministries. Even after sex scandals, financial collapse, and serving time in jail for fraud.
In 1974, Bakker and his wife founded the PTL Club (“Praise the Lord”), which started out as a late-night TV talk show. Then as their ministry took off they built Heritage USA, a Christian-based theme park in South Carolina.
Sometimes at contrast with their Christian teachings, Jim and Tammy Faye enjoyed a life of luxury, owning multiple houses, driving expensive cars, and flaunting their wealth – “more money than God,” as ABC News described it.
Then things went sour: Bakker and PTL came under investigation by the FCC for allegedly misusing funds they raised on the air. And in the early ‘80s the IRS found that $1.3 million in ministry funds had been used for the Bakkers’ personal benefit. In 1987 he was exposed for having an affair with a ministry secretary named Jessica Hahn (you may have seen her subsequent nude spreads in Playboy Magazine).
Bakker was found guilty on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Rival minister Jerry Falwell called Bakker a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant, and “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” And competitor Jimmy Swaggart called Bakker a “cancer in the body of Christ.”
After serving a reduced prison term, he has emerged as the host of the Morningside Ministry with his new wife.
However, in many ways, Jim Bakker’s first wife Tammy Faye was far more interesting. She divorced him in 1992, then died of colon cancer fifteen years later. In the meantime, she attracted her own loyal followers due to her “eccentric and glamorous persona.”
You remember Tammy Faye with her raccoon eye makeup, Betty Boop singing style, and campy personality. Hers was a career that ranged from puppeteer to talk show host to recording artist to televangelist minister.
Her second husband Roe Messner, a contractor who built more than 1,700 churches, went to jail for fraud also.
All of this is to introduce you to the new movie, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” It stars Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) as the minister’s flamboyant 4-foot-11 heavily mascaraed wife. That the slender actress could transform herself into the rounded clown-faced Tammy Faye is a testament to her thespian skills. No wonder she’s been twice-nominated for an Academy Award.
British-born Andrew Garfield takes on the role of Jim Bakker, proving that he can transform himself from Spider-Man to a Bible-thumping evangelist.
Other familiar figures show up: Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell, Gabriel Olds as Pat Robertson, and Jay Huguley as Jimmy Swaggart.
Jessica Chastain purchased the movie rights and produced the film. It was directed by sketch comedian Michael Showalter. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is currently in theaters.
Don’t confuse “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” with the similar-named Faye Dunaway twisty thriller, “Eyes of Lara Mars.” This biopic is actually based on a same-named 2000 documentary narrated (appropriately) by drag queen Ru Paul.
There have been other movies, stage plays, and musicals about Tammy Faye LaValley Bakker Messner, but this one is worth watching just for all the bravura performances.
The critics agree:
Rex Reed says, “Jessica Chastain delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in the title role, and Andrew Garfield is nothing less than sensational as her soft-spoken, indifferent, and cloyingly ambitious preacher husband Jim.”
Chris Knight says, “Jessica Chastain … has been keen to make this movie for years, and throws herself into the part with a fervor that borders on zealotry.”
Fico Cangiano says, “Jessica Chastain’s fantastic performance is what really keeps you glued to the screen.”
As Rotten Tomatoes sums it up, “Jessica Chastain’s starring performance makes it hard to look away.”
You might say, “The Eyes have it.”
I have my own measurement for the film’s success in redeeming Tammy Faye: My grandmother sent money to Tammy Faye’s television ministry. And she felt a little stung after the collapse of The PTL Club. However, I think my grandmother would have happily paid to see this movie.
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