By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/13/21 – Opening Friday, September 17, in theatres is Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. In the 1970s and 80s, Tammy Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker, rose from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park and were revered for their message of love, acceptance, and prosperity. Tammy Faye was legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, it wasn’t long before financial improprieties, scheming rivals, and scandal toppled their carefully constructed empire. The writer Abe Sylvia based the screenplay on the 2000 documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. The 2000 work that entertainingly reshaped the legacy of a woman often derided for her reliance on make-up and accused of bilking her loyal supporters. But that film exists. Why remake it as a showy dramatic biopic? It seems that this new biopic was made solely to showcase the talent of actress Jessica Chastain and given the track record of Michael Showalter, it is no surprise that The Eyes of Tammy Faye has a satiric edge.
Showcasing Jessica Chastain’s acting is what this new film does. The plot is predictable. We never really learn what made Tammy Faye Bakker tick. We see Jessica Chastain always in performance mode, busy applying makeup and donning gaudy costumes, posing for the camera, and singing her own songs. The film fails to confront the deeper issues of faith, acceptance, and resilience. The character of Jim Bakker is underdeveloped and so we gain little insight into his understanding of faith and Christian values. In a rather traditional biopic structure, Tammy Faye’s life unfolds from her childhood fascination with religion to her courtship with a young Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). The Tammy Faye of Showalter’s film is outspoken and strident, daring to voice her own opinions with the men advising her husband on his growing career, much to the disdain of a conservative like Jerry Falwell (a glowering Vincent D’Onofrio). Showalter and Chastain play Tammy Faye as a pure soul, someone who believed in all of her causes and was surrounded by inferior men who consistently tried to dim her inner brightness.
The movie shows the Bakkers rising to superstardom as successful televangelists in the 1970s, with the TV show, and eventual network, The PTL Club (short for Praise The Lord). It also shows the selfish and disastrous decisions that led to their downfall after her husband cheated on her and cheated their viewers out of over $150 million. The couple was some of the early proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which says that Jesus wants American Christians to be wealthy and prosperous. They were, at their height, some of the biggest figures shaping American Christianity.
The strongest suit in Showalter’s film is the way he recreates the famous interview that Tammy Faye Bakker did with Steve Pieters (played by Randy Havens), a gay Christian minister with AIDS. She believed that the Christian way was one of love and that meant embracing those in need. She recognized the existence of AIDS at a time when no one in Tammy Faye’s world of televangelism and conservative Christianity was willing to do so. While Jim Bakker was a classic Christian conservative and is against LGBTQ+ rights, Tammy Faye was an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, something that few Evangelical Christians today are. In the interview, Bakker and Pieters discussed coming out, sexuality, his AIDS diagnosis, and the death of his partner. Bakker commented, “How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care.”
It was the charisma and firecracker personality of Tammy Faye Bakker that captured the hearts and wallets of people. Perhaps she did not completely comprehend the financial nature of the tele-evangelistic empires that her husband Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell built. Televangelists who came to prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s by bilking their gullible followers into funding their religious empire, only to see the house of cards they constructed collapse down on them, leading to jail time. The marriage finally dissolved in the early 1990s following Jim Bakker being convicted of numerous counts of fraud and conspiracy. After divorcing Bakker, Tammy Faye married Roe Messner and changed her name to Tammy Faye Messner. She died in 2007 after an eleven-year battle with colon cancer. Ever the charlatan, Bakker has continued as a huckster to this day, as the 81-year-old was selling silver supplements during the pandemic as a potential treatment for COVID-19.