To most people, the name “Tammy Faye Bakker” is synonymous with gaudy makeup and over-the-top outfits; the flashier half of a pair of swindlers who exploited millions of adoring followers in the name of Jesus.
But what if, under the fake lashes and Betty Boop voice, there was a misunderstood and lonely woman who “just wanted to love people” — but found herself swept up in scandal?
That’s the narrative put forth in Searchlight’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” hitting theaters on Sept. 17. Directed by veteran actor and comedian Michael Showalter, the colorful biopic stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as her husband, controversial televangelist Jim Bakker. Rated PG-13, the film features sexual content, drug use and crude jokes.
The film opens with Tammy Faye as a young girl in rural Minnesota. The eldest of eight children, Tammy Faye was the only one born during the first marriage of her mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones). As a result, Tammy Faye’s mother doesn’t allow her to set foot in a church lest congregants shun the whole family due to the disgrace of divorce.
But determined to be “saved,” Tammy Faye sneaks into the church and begins speaking in tongues — an act that solidifies her determination to enter the ministry.
Fast forward a decade or so, and Tammy Faye is attending Bible college. There, she meets an energetic young student named Jim Bakker, who presents appealing ideas about the Bible.
“God doesn’t want people to be poor,” a young Jim declares to his class, horrifying his professor who points out that the Bible also says “blessed be the poor.” Nevertheless, Tammy Faye is delighted by Jim, and, united by their shared vision for evangelism, the two get married and start their ministry — a traveling puppet show.
It’s a tough calling. The Bakkers struggle to make ends meet and eventually lose their car due to unpaid bills. But by happenstance, they run into a producer for televangelist Pat Robertson, host of The Christian Broadcasting Network. He invites the Bakkers to the studio, convinced his boss would get a kick out of them.
The producer proves to be right, and what follows is a blur. After a brief stint puppeteering, Jim convinces Pat to give him his own late-night show, resulting in the still-running "700 Club." Eventually, the Bakkers go on to establish the Praise the Lord (PTL) Network and studios in North Carolina. They build a Christian theme park, Heritage USA, a "Christian version of Disneyland." As Jim builds his empire, Tammy Faye fulfills her dream of hosting her own show along with singing, recording and performing positive songs like “You Can Make it!” and “Blest.”
But as staggering as the Bakkers' meteoric rise to success was, their downfall was even more seismic.
In 1987, Jim was accused of using ministry funds as hush money to a woman, Jessica Hahn, with whom he'd had a one-night stand. Two years later, he was convicted of fraud over their company's fundraising despite maintaining his innocence. While Jim is in prison, Tammy Faye files for divorce.
In the aftermath of the scandal, the Bakkers are left destitute. The latter part of the film features Tammy Faye in the '90s, alone in a small apartment with her dog. Wearing her trademark lashes and brightly manicured nails, she debates whether to answer an invitation to sing at a Christian university. The Church, she feels, has all but abandoned her.
On the surface, Tammy Faye is seemingly optimistic as her world comes crashing down. In one scene, she sings an upbeat song with gusto moments before her husband joins on her stage to ask supporters for more money — they're being persecuted by those who don’t want the good news of the Gospel to go forth, he tells his audience. The money, of course, comes rolling in.
But off-screen, she’s struggling with feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. Increasingly neglected by her husband, she has an affair with a producer — a sin Jim forces her to confess on live television. Realizing she no longer knows the man she married, she overdoses on prescription pills.
Chastain, in heavy prosthetics, plays an excellent Tammy Faye, complete with a high-pitched giggle and Midwestern accent. Her versions of “Don’t Give Up” and “Blest” are spot-on, complete with exaggerated syllables. In turn, Garfield is a convincing Jim, portraying his shift from an endearing young Bible student to a calculated swindler.
Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, the film tries hard to humanize Tammy Faye, who died in 2007. It asks viewers to both empathize and understand a woman who was regularly satirized by the media, and it succeeds in doing so.
As the film progresses through the decades, Tammy Faye’s makeup becomes heavier and more cartoonish. The metaphor the film is making is clear: The more Tammy Faye’s life falls apart, the more she masks her true self, feelings and identity.
It also highlights the fact that Tammy Faye was always something a misfit in the evangelical world. She hosts frivolous segments about penile implants, baking and cupcake decorating. She interviews a gay pastor who has AIDs. She ruffles the feathers of her conservative peers, calling for acceptance of the LGBT community and even sparring with Jerry Falwell Sr. — who is portrayed as something of a homophobe — over the issue.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a compelling biopic, rich with drama and scandal. However, problematically, Tammy Faye’s brand of Christianity — one that purports to accept, love and humanize all individuals — is depicted as true Christianity. It’s presented in sharp contrast to both the self-serving “health and wealth” gospel preached by her husband and the religious right movement that Falwell and Robertson promote.
But though her version of Christianity fulfills Jesus’ command in Mark 12, it doesn’t recognize humanity’s fallen state and desperate need for a Savior, nor the redemption found in Christ alone. The film doesn’t mock Christianity; it simply doesn’t present the beauty and life-saving truths of the full Gospel.
The saga of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is a sobering reminder of just how devastating a religion, founded on an incomplete gospel and warped by greed and power, can be.
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org