When I grew up in the early 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were always in the news. I grew up non-religious, but my friend Becky was a conservative Christian. The Bible was on top of the piano as Becky played “Rock of Ages” and told me of the coming tribulations. My young blonde head was full of hell, devils, demons, red fiery rocks and the end of the world. Becky read the Bible to me. “Don’t worry,” she said to me, “you have time. With God, there is nothing to worry about.”
I recall singing “If the devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack.” The 700 Club with Pat Robertson was on TV.
The Christian 1980s are here once more in Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” an immersive, colorful and very human portrait of the evangelical icon Tammy Faye. The film manages to be personal, serious and campy at once.
One sees Tammy as a young girl (Chandler Head) insecure and yearning to belong. Her mom (Cherry Jones) forbids her to attend the local church, given that mom is seen as a pariah for being married twice. Tammy is pulled to the cross as if magnetized. She works herself up so much that she begins speaking in tongues, (a practice known as glossolalia) and falls to the floor.
Then in the late 1960s, Tammy (Jessica Chastain) is seen attending a sermon with a young Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at the podium. Bakker is nervously preaching that it is okay to be outspoken and Christian and further, that it is okay to be Christian and have money. In fact, God wants it that way. Bakker’s shyness and open smile is endearing to Tammy. She slyly sings Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” Tammy was known as a singer and Chastain is excellent in capturing the evangelist’s singing voice, as well as her speech.
During a picnic, Bakker confesses that he was once distracted and accidentally struck a young man in the street. Bakker was horrified and made a deal asking God for forgiveness and salvation. Tammy is overwhelmed by his honesty, and asks him to dance. Later they have sex in Bakker’s bedroom under a huge wooden cross.
Tammy sees nothing sinful in sex with two committed godly people since it’s all part of a divine plan. Bakker and Tammy are quickly married and go on the road with a traveling puppet show, Tammy doing the voices. The show, a kind of Evangelical “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” is a local hit, attracting the attention of Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). The couple get their own segment on The 700 Club and later form their own satellite network, PTL, sometimes referred to as “Praise the Loot.” The couple start to make money and accumulate lots of it.
Jessica Chastain gives a stellar performance that is nothing short of a transformation. The same can be said of Andrew Garfield. This is a young couple that started idealistically, spreading the word. Jim Bakker had a folksy cheerful approach and a winning smile. Tammy employed a kind of wholesome ‘Betty Boop’ flirtatious persona to win converts. To Tammy, there is nothing devilish in sex appeal. Makeup and eyelashes were visual tools which led to the divine.
Jim’s fame goes to his head. In one jolting scene, he is intoxicated with power, laughing at Tammy’s “clown” makeup, as he tussles suggestively on the floor with a male production assistant. Tammy is devastated and her horror is visceral.
Tammy stands up to Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) who argues against homosexuals and “the liberal agenda.” To Tammy’s great credit, she speaks up and does so loudly, going so far as to include a gay minister on the show, Steve Pieters (Randy Havens).
Bakker is at a loss. He loses interest in Tammy and she has an affair, while pregnant, with her record producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach) who resembles Jesus, according to the film.
Things go from bad to worse as Tammy’s expensive furnishings are repossessed, under the self-righteous machinations of Jerry Falwell who exerts a power-play on PTL. Though this is soap opera territory, Chastain never loses sight of Tammy Faye’s gravity or humanity.
In the 1990s with a contrite Jim Bakker in prison, Tammy Faye has the aura of a former starlet. She yearns to be on TV once more. Touching it is to see Tammy shunned by church peers. She is treated as a Scarlet woman but she is altogether real.
When Tammy sings her final number at Oral Roberts University, she is as iconic as Judy Garland. Charisma, kitsch and cosmetology were all within this woman driven to seriously preach as a kind of performance.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” presents equal lines of mascara and martyrdom.
Write Ian at email@example.com