The Eyes of Tammy Faye will penetrate to your soul. You may think you know Tammy Faye’s story, but go beyond the tabloids in Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sick) heartfelt, hilarious, honest film that paints a humanizing portrait of the ridiculed and often parodied Tammy Faye Bakker. You will undoubtedly be blown away by Jessica Chastain’s jaw-dropping performance as the “Queen of Eyelashes” in this powerful rise, fall, and redemption story. Tammy’s eyelashes may be fake, but there is nothing fake about this candid portrait of the late television icon. Playing the mastermind of the PTL Network scandal is Andrew Garfield in a showcase performance that will have you despising Jim, but praising the uncanny portrayal. The film highlights Tammy Faye’s genuine love for God and her love for people–everyone! Even in the 1980s, when the LGBT community had little to no voice, especially amongst fundamental evangelicals, she was a loving voice for them. While it would have been so easy for the film to have been devoid of genuine levity, audiences will find there are some hilarious scenes that work as fantastic humanizing elements, especially early on when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their lustful adolescent interests as hormonally charged young adults and newlyweds. Showalter, Chastain, and Garfield deliver a fresh perspective on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that depicts human beings, not one-dimensional caricatures of televangelism.
In the 1970s, Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim, rise from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. Tammy Faye becomes legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, financial improprieties, scheming rivals and a scandal soon threaten to topple their carefully constructed empire.
I already want to see it again! And it’s definitely becoming an addition to my physical media collection. This narrative film is based on the award-winning documentary by the same name, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and I suggest watching it as a companion piece. In many respects, the storytelling structure of The Eyes of Tammy Faye parallels the approach Craig Gillespie took in I, Tonya. In addition to the awards-talk around the performances, I would look to see this film in other conversations such as makeup, screenplay, and perhaps directing and picture. Showalter’s film explores the world of Tammy Faye, as seen through her unmistakable eyes; furthermore, he treats the character (the person) of Tammy Faye with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the heavy-makeup-wearing satirical and parodied caricature that many remember from the tabloids. Perhaps the thousands of times she said “God loves you” may have came across as insincere; but the truth is, she wanted the world to know that God and Tammy both love them.
Showalter’s candid picture gives Tammy Faye and Jim the full treatment as he takes audiences on a journey through their story, including the scandal that rocked a nation, whilst treating them with dignity and respect as they are–as we all are–flawed humans. This biographic drama seeks to understand (mostly Tammy Faye, but a little of Jim too) the Bakkers, not mock them or their work. Tammy Faye is a breath of fresh air in an environment polluted by stale, lifeless, and downright rotten individuals. From the beginning of the film, you learn that her faith in God and love of Jesus was not going to be defined by her circumstances or what people thought of her. If you told her she couldn’t, she would prove to you that she could. That is a trait that she could continue through her entire life, even after her scandalous fall from grace. You also learn that while she lived an opulent lifestyle, she was never defined by her material possessions. Oh don’t get me wrong, she loved her signature clothing style and trademark makeup and hair, but those things did not define her or her faith. Well, except for her eyes. She said “if you remove my [fake] eyelashes, I wouldn’t be me.”
While her husband was pulling the strings, she was doing everything she could to reach people for Christ; however, it was also clear that she loved the performance, the camera, and the microphone. If she hadn’t gone into televangelism, she very well could have been a Broadway star with her larger than life showmanship and personality. We also learn that Tammy Faye was likely unaware of the dishonest and illegal dealings of her husband, even though she at times suspected he wasn’t being honest. Chalk it up to extreme naivety. Despite no reports of Jim being physically abusive to Tammy Faye or their two kids, he was shown to be psychologically and emotionally abusive to Tammy Faye. Even to the extent that he used Tammy’s minor indiscretion with a Nashville music producer against her, to humiliate her on international television in an effort to raise more money because of her testimony. Tammy’s flirtation with the an elicit affair goes to show that we are all flawed individuals that toy with or fall victim to the same temptations, in whatever form they take. But we understand how and why Tammy Faye was tempted to search for love elsewhere; she was not appreciated as a person by Jim, but only as a tool to get more money out of PTL’s “partners.” Even when the reality of Jim would peak through, she never let that detour her from spreading the love of God to everyone in her signature style.
While we ostensibly watch the events of the rise and fall of the Bakkers through Tammy Faye’s eyes, in a similar fashion we did in I, Tonya, we also get glimpses of the story through Jim’s perspective when it serves to advance the emotional journey of the characters, especially when it comes to his complicated relationship with the then and now unlikable Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. For example, I did not know that it was Jim and Tammy Faye that started the 700 Club. But when the innovative Christian talk show became a popular program on the fledgling CBN Network, Pat Robertson placed them on a maternity/paternity sabbatical, but was actually steeling their show in a jealous power-grab. The Bakkers then started what would become the TBN Network, but were ran off from there too. Finally, they began the PTL Club (later massive, worldwide PTL Satellite Network), and the success of that venture would eventually spawn a 24-hour network, neighborhoods, and a theme park that would become the third most visited in the country after Disneyland and Disney World.
While PTL was growing by leaps and bounds, Robertson and Falwell were seething with jealously at the success of Jim and Tammy Faye, a motive that comes into play when they discover the payment of PTL funds for the hush-money regarding Jim’s affair. Little did Tammy Faye know that Jim surrounded himself with a conniving mafia-like group of “Christians” that sought to take down the power couple after they departed from the Robertson-Falwell fundamentalist agenda. This mafia-like mentality is most apparent when Tammy Faye televises the emotional interview with a gay AIDS patient, also a Christian pastor, on her show. She ends the interview with reminding the viewers that Christians are called to love as Jesus loved. It was shortly after that, that Robertson and Falwell actively looked for ways to dethrone the king and queen of televangelism. Of all the examples of Christians in the film, amongst the lead and supporting characters, Tammy Faye is the best example of how a Christian should love and act.
Chastain has instantly shot to the front of the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, and Garfield may find himself in the Best Actor conversations as well. Chastain disappears behind the trademark Tammy Faye makeup and delivers a larger than life performance! And since Tammy Faye, herself, was the definition of camp and larger than life, it’s an incredibly authentic, sincere performance. It’s easy to see how the LBGTQ community was drawn to the person of Tammy Faye then and now, because the LGBTQ community often greatly admires women who remain strong in the face of adversity. But Chastain’s performance of the person of Tammy Faye will undoubtedly inspire and win the admiration of all kinds of people from all walks of life. While Chastain is brilliantly portraying the character of Tammy Faye, we learn in the film (and in the documentary, the interviews, and PLT flips that many will undoubtedly pour through after leaving the film) that Tammy Faye wasn’t a character at all but one of the most genuine, sincere loving people that ever walked the planet. Chastain captures every nuance of Tammy Faye with uncanny precision.
Even the indelible Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s love-to-hate mother that was so often Tammy Faye’s harshest critic may be in the supporting actress conversations. She’s a scene steeler herself, much like Allison Janney was as LaVona Harding in I, Tonya. All the lead and supporting performances are perfectly executed, and the hair/makeup on everyone leaves an uncanny resemblance between the actors and the real-life people that are being portrayed. If Tammy Faye was still alive, I feel strongly that she would appreciate the film. Her son Jay appears to like the film from what I’ve read of his comments.
I’d be remiss not to mention, what is perhaps the most telling scene of who Tammy Faye was. Months or perhaps years after the collapse of the PTL Empire and all her fine things were sold (and house actually burned to the ground), and she’s driving a crappy Honda Accord and living in a rundown apartment, she pulls into her parking spot one day. And she gets out, she hears a few of the neighborhood punk teens making fun or her. She walks over to them, and graciously says, “if you’re going to talk about me, since I am your neighbor, you should at least shake my hand and meet me first; hi, I’m Tammy Faye” (or something to this effect).
What we have here is a brilliantly produced biographical drama that works as trifecta comprised of a cautionary tale, a redemption story, and film that provides social commentary on topics such as politics, religion, and patriotism as our country is becoming increasingly polarized on these subjects.
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
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