When you think of Tammy Faye Bakker what pops to mind? The clown-like makeup, of course. The financial scandal that brought her and husband Jim Bakker down. The silly puppets and cheesy songs that she performed in the name of Jesus. A tackiness so extreme it was almost elevated to an art form. But as The Eyes of Tammy Faye makes clear, there was much more to this complicated woman than, well, meets the eye.
I didn’t see the 2000 documentary that this biopic is based on, so I confess I was pretty in the dark about the fact that she was a friend to the LGBTQ community, a stance that rankled the leaders of the evangelical movement. I also didn’t know that she rose from poverty, had a cold and sometimes cruel mother, and was, well, if not quite a feminist, at least feminist adjacent.
Director Michael Showalter certainly has fun with the tackiness I referred to. Will there ever be a period as gloriously kitschy as the ’70s and early ’80s—which is when the Bakkers rose to prominence. At some point, I lost count of the amount of unnecessary fur coats, bedazzled headbands, hairspray so abused I could practically smell it, and linebacker-sized shoulder pads on display. Not to mention the interior décor—the gilded everything, the explosion of pastel and chintz, the ubiquitous chandeliers, the enormous vanity portraits mounted on the walls. In some sense, this film is reminiscent of I, Tonya, which also reveled in a certain kind of conspicuous bad taste from the ’80s. But that film was more explicitly mocking. Showalter has genuine affection for his bedazzled heroine. All of the mocking here is gentle.
Much will be written about Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye—and rightly so, she’s excellent, capturing the televangelist’s relentless spunk, her desire to be loved and seen, her genuine kindness, and her religious fervor that eventually morphed into a good old-fashioned American fervor for fame. (I confess, I worried that the prosthetic jaw Chastain was sporting would be nightmare-inducing, but once things got rolling, I barely noticed it.) Chastain is also excellent when she sings, capturing that weird thing Tammy Faye did where she would talk-sing a particular word—“Hallelujah” in “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” for example—to give it emphasis. (William Shatner could never.)
However, I do want to spend a little time talking about Andrew Garfield’s excellent Jim Bakker. We’ve seen the Tammy Faye character before—indeed, she’s an extreme version of the plucky/sad archetype I wrote about in my review of Queenpins— but Jim is a species unto himself. Undeniably charming at times, with a strangely sing-songy, folksy voice, he’s also prone to baby talk, self-aggrandizement, and bouts of extravagant self-pity. Bakker was a born con-artist who latched onto religion as a means to an end, preaching an appealing gospel of “God doesn’t want you to be poor” to his parishioners. Garfield nails all of Bakker’s strange idiosyncrasies.
Bakker also was apparently gay—or at least bisexual—a fact that tormented him and made him inclined to lash out at Tammy Faye. He was never abusive, at least as far as we know, but he ignored her and mocked her and made her feel small, which is exactly the way her stern and withholding mother (Cherry Jones) wanted her to feel. Jim’s mistreatment, combined with a growing sense that the walls were closing in on their empire, drove Tammy Faye to pills.
Clearly, Showalter was drawn to this material because of the Trump parallels. The Bakkers have aspirational wealth. Poor people keep giving them their money, with some vague promise that one day they’ll be wealthy, too. There’s also an us-against-the-world mentality— “It’s a witch hunt!” “They want to silence us!”—that bonds their followers and provides a convenient shield against criticism.
Now about that feminism adjacency. There’s a wonderful scene at the film’s midpoint where Jim and Tammy Faye attend a barbecue at the home of Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), the godfather of evangelicals, is there, too, and Jim is starstruck. (It’s Jim who craves the approval of these two men, while Tammy Faye realizes that his television talent eclipses theirs.) All of the womenfolk are sitting at separate tables, but Tammy Faye wants to be at the table where it happens, so to speak, and she sidles her way next to Jim, handing him their baby. (Nervous conservative men on Twitter would call this Jim’s “beta male” moment.) Not only does Tammy Faye chime into the conversation, she argues with Falwell about his stance against homosexuals. “We’re all just people,” she trills. “Made of the same dirt. And God didn’t make any junk.”
Later, on the PTL (Praise The Lord) network, she does an interview with an AIDS patient, expressing compassion toward him and outrage over the fact that people are so AIDS-phobic. She even seems to intuitively understand that you are born gay, it’s not a choice—still a fairly radical stance in the ’80s.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is far from perfect. It tries to cram too much into its two-hour time frame, it never fully explains why Tammy Faye wore that ridiculous makeup (one can extrapolate that it was in response to her ascetic mother) or how she became such an empath (ditto). It touches lightly on the evangelical shift into right-wing politics, but doesn’t say anything new on that front. The Trump parallels are interesting, but obvious. But the film is highly entertaining all the same.
Lately, there’s been a lot of debate among cinephiles about the validity of the biopic as an art form. There’s a general consensus that the standard “rags to riches” biopic form—parodied so effectively in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—is played out. I love an unconventional biopic as much as the next gal—from Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould to I’m Not There to Ed Wood. But there is something to be said for the sturdy pleasures of a film that provides a canvas for stellar performances and gives us greater insight into the interior life of a famous person. Most things I thought I knew about Tammy Faye Bakker were wrong. And I really enjoyed getting to know her.