Although I had not heard of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker until I read Jesus and John Wayne last month, a movie that portrays any of the corners of the multi-faceted religious right was bound to give me a surreally nostalgic experience. I was not alive for most of the events in the film and have never met the figures depicted. Nevertheless, my personal background within the world of the religious right means that seeing Hollywood actors playing figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gives me the weird sense of seeing my relatives portrayed on the big screen. Despite the oddness of those associations, I was impressed with the Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) as a character portrait of Tammy Faye Bakker, a woman whose spirit Jessica Chastain captures with a perfect balance of confidence and vulnerability.
In 1960, Tammy Faye meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at Bible college. After proving themselves rebels by espousing prosperity Gospel teachings and dancing on campus, the couple drops out of school in order to hit the road as a traveling preaching and singing duo. Soon enough, the Bakkers land a gig on the Christian Broadcasting Network, from which it’s a straight line to success with the support of Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). However, the majors pillars of the Bakker empire – including, but not limited to, the PTL Club and Heritage USA – are built on the rotten foundations of egoism and greed. In the end, the thin surface of the Bakker’s marital tension rolls back to reveal sexual abuse allegations and fraud.
Through Jessica Chastain, the film portrays a complex character. Tammy Faye, a woman who thrives in the spotlight and is known for her highly emotional affectations, has a codependent relationship with her work. Although she believes she is involved in ministry, Tammy Faye acts out a two-way street in which she performs for the CBN audience in exchange for adoration and money. Although Jim Bakker’s improprieties are suggested throughout the film, they are not fully revealed until near the end. It is suggested that Tammy Faye was not unaware situation but was living in denial, allowing herself to be blinded by the glamor of a show biz life thinly disguised as ministry. Throughout her life, Tammy Faye periodically encounters red flags but ignores or rationalizes them all until her lifestyle blows up in her face. The fact that the story unfolds from Tammy Faye’s perspective makes the film all the more intriguing, since the viewer is invited to empathize with her. As a viewer, I experienced varying levels of both pity and disgust throughout the film.
The final few scenes of the film made me feel tenderness (in spite of myself) toward Tammy Faye. Later in life, as an empty shell of a woman trying to reclaim scraps of her former glory, Tammy Faye is pleasantly surprised by an invitation to sing at Oral Roberts University. The final scene somewhat softens what would otherwise be a completely depressing film. A humble but grateful Tammy Faye tearfully performs for the Oral Roberts audience. She had not performed in 10 years and her face during the song suggests that, this time, the emotion is perhaps genuine.
Jessica Chastain's Acting10.0/10
Tammy Faye Makeup9.5/10
- Director: Michael Showalter
- Writers: Abe Sylvia
- Based on the documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
- Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D'Onofrio, Gabriel Olds
- Production companies: Freckle Films, MWM Studios