Televangelists featured in some of the of the most spectacular falls from grace in the '80s. Television preachers who'd spent the better part of the '70s and the '80s insinuating themselves into pocketbooks, not to mention the sidelines of American politics, provided an endless spectacle for those who relished in schadenfreude, be it Jimmy Swaggart's pathetic "I have sinned" admission of a transgression with a prostitute, or Oral Roberts's shark-jumping plea that he would be "called home" by God if viewers didn't help his ministry reach their fundraising targets.
Few TV ministries came down with as big a mascara-splattering thud as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL Club. Jim and Tammy Faye's irresponsible spending, and Jim's payoff to a rape victim, resulted in one of the biggest scandals of the decade. Tammy Faye's courtship and marriage, as well as her downfall and reinvention, are all subjects of the new biographical film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name.
At the center of the film is actor Jessica Chastain, who masterfully embodies Tammy Faye from her young adulthood through her struggles to break into mainstream entertainment (albeit D-list mainstream entertainment) in the '90s. The film, at times, trods very familiar territory for entertainer biographies, and the script doesn't really let you know what made Tammy Faye tick. But you forget that you're actually watching Chastain, especially once she adopts her subject's trademark wigs and makeup.
We open with an extreme closeup on Tammy Faye in the makeup chair, explaining to her stylist which of her cosmetics are permanently tattooed on. With a Betty Boop voice and childish affect, Tammy Faye seems seems both self-unaware and overinvested in being seen. As a child in Minnesota, Tammy Faye, always devout in her faith, was kept away from the family church by her divorced mother (lesbian actress Cherry Jones, just as unrecognizable as Chastain), since oldest child Tammy Faye was living evidence of that first marriage. Tammy Faye's being born again once she enters the church is the start of a desire to inspire, perform and be the center of attention.
The film is relatively short on explicit details on how much Tammy Faye knew about PTL's wonky bookkeeping and when she knew it. She wildly overspends when the Bakkers are first basking in the ministry's financial success. She then becomes addicted to pills, often washed down with her trademark Diet Cokes. The film does not name Jim Bakker's victim. The '80s media cast her in notoriety in the wake of that episode, but the filmmakers presumably are reluctant to make light of a woman who was allegedly drugged and raped.
Tammy Faye's warm feelings toward the gay community are very central to the film. She's bewildered and disgusted by colleagues' harsh opinions of LGBTQ folks, and goes behind her husband's back to interview a gay man living with AIDS on the air, ending the segment with a plea for acceptance for the community. One performance segment ramps up that connection even more, heightening Chastain's appearance to look even more like a drag queen for a Judy-plays-the-Palace type of triumph .
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is not as sympathetic toward Jim Bakker, whom Andrew Garfield portrays. Struggling with both a financially over-leveraged ministryhe was acting more as a developer than a preacher by the '80sand his obviously sexual feelings toward other men, his affection for Tammy Faye's charms turns to resentment and passive-aggressive emotional abuse. One moment he says he forgives her for an indiscretion; then, in the next, he says that forgiveness is contingent on her apologizing on-air to the entire PTL audience, who light up the donation lines whenever Tammy Faye has a particularly emotionally engaging moment.
If any one person embodies the role of a villain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, it is the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who not only became a power broker in '80s Republican politics but was also the self-appointed don to the era's preacher-broadcasters. His betrayal of Jim and Tammy Fayewho pretty much had handed over PTL's finances to himwas the nail in the coffin for the couple. Vincent D'Onofrio portrays Falwell not with the real Falwell's trademark smugness, but as a physically imposing evangelical Machiavelli.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye sometimes seems more concerned with evoking any residual nostalgia for our memories of Tammy Faye and delivering an Oscar nomination for Chastain than telling us anything new about its subject. But Chastain is mesmerizing at moments, as is Cherry Jones. This won't tell you anything you didn't already suspect about Tammy Faye Bakker, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye is worth seeing