Michael Showalter, director of the forthcoming film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” believes that when televangelist Tammy Faye first exploded on the scene with her husband, Jim Bakker, her intentions were good.
“She seemed to have a very pure belief that God is love, and love thy neighbor, and that kind of thing,” the 51-year-old actor, director, writer and producer told The Christian Post.
But as Bakkers’ fame grew, so did their thirst for greed and power — and Tammy Faye Bakker’s values began to “conflict with some of the voices that had sway in her community.”
“The Bakkers are kind of known, first and foremost, as subjects of this gigantic scandal," Showalter said.
The saga of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is one of the most notorious in the history of televangelism. At the height of the duo's success, Jim Bakker was accused of using ministry funds to pay for the silence of a rape accuser and to support a lavish lifestyle, including an air-conditioned dog house and a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces.
The fallout was devastating. In 1988, Jim Bakker was indicted on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy and spent eight years in prison. The couple, who later divorced, ended up in financial ruin and the subjects of public disdain.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which releases on Friday, follows the rise and fall of the Bakkers and their PTL — "Praise the Lord" — empire.
Starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, the film follows the couple as they meet at a Bible college and mingle with the likes of Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and CBN’s Pat Robertson. It documents their rise from the fresh-faced duo behind a traveling puppet show to the luxury-loving force behind a multimillion-dollar TV network.
It also features the many scandals that marred the couple’s personal life, from infidelity to drug addiction, and their seismic fall from grace.
On the surface, the Bakkers’ story has “all the elements of a great page-turner,” defined by lust, greed and rag-to-riches — and then back to rags.
“It’s enormously entertaining,” Showalter said.
But as he peeled back the layers of Tammy Faye Bakker, Showalter said, what he discovered was a “trailblazer,” a woman who was far more complex than the cartoonish figure whose exaggerated lashes and high-pitched voice inspired SNL skits and humorous T-shirts.
“For most of her career, Tammy Faye didn't have the makeup that we all think of her as having,” Showalter said. “As her life was starting to fall apart, as the empire that they were building was crumbling, her makeup got more extreme. For her, her makeup was her armor and her mask. When you look at it that way, it’s not so fun to make fun of her.”
Despite growing up with little religious affiliation, Showalter remembers watching the Bakkers from his television with fasciation. Even as a child, he felt Tammy Faye Bakker had a “likable personality.”
“You couldn’t take your eyes off of them,” he recalled. “I would equate it to an infomercial or QVC; something that is just so strange, a world that you don’t understand, but you’re fascinated by it.”
So decades later, when approached with the opportunity to bring their story to life, he jumped at the chance.
“There are just great costumes and music and sets — it's a period piece. It just felt like a really rich world I wanted to revisit and bring to life,” he said.
Tammy Faye Bakker, Showalter pointed out, never fit in with the evangelical world she claimed. The film portrays the televangelist interviewing AIDS activist Steve Pieters on her show, sparring with Falwell Sr. over the issue of homosexuality and hosting a TV segment about penile implants.
She was, as Showalter put it, a “complicated figure.”
“You've got to try to see these characters as real people and not as caricatures,” he added. “I think when you do that, you discover all these things about them that you go, ‘Well, I never really thought about that.”
Though Tammy Faye Bakker, who remarried after divorcing Bakker in 1992, died from cancer in 2007, both of her children, Tammy Sue and Jamie Charles, were involved in the making of the film. Jim Bakker, who recently claimed his downfall was an "early example of cancel culture, today hosts "The Jim Bakker Show."
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is about “scandal, relationships and politics,” Showalter said, but it also tries to promote a message of “tolerance, love and acceptance” — something he feels Tammy Faye Bakker believed was “the most important practice.”
“Whatever our flaws, at the end of the day, we’re all human and we all want to be happy,” he said.
Searchlight Pictures will release the film in theaters on Sept. 17.