Tammy Faye Bakker gets the celebrity biopic treatment in a new movie starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield.
“My name is Michael Showalter, and I’m the director of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” So in this scene, our two main characters— Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker, played by Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield— are attending a barbecue hosted by Pat Robertson, which is also being attended by a who’s who of the big names in the evangelical community. In this scene, Jim Bakker is excited to be sitting at a table with all of these BMOCs and wanting to make a good impression. And Tammy Faye is going to crash the party. I wanted to show the extent to which Tammy is trying to operate and be seen and heard in a man’s world.” “As you were saying, Jerry. [LAUGHS] A lot of it, in terms of just setting the scene, is to try to throw as many looks around the table as possible of how uncomfortable it makes them feel just to have a woman wanting to sit down at the table with them. Meanwhile, Tammy is really behaving like a bull in a china shop, kind of overcompensating for the awkwardness by grabbing a chair, and the sound of the chair is very loud. Everything that she’s doing is disrupting this kind of insular boys club thing that they’re all having with each other.” “Now, God has a voice in this fight.” “Amen.” “Mm-hmm.” “Mm? What’s he fighting?” “Liberal agenda. Feminist agenda. Homosexual agenda. It’s time for a reversal of these trends and the only hopes in saving America.” “Get back to the good old days.” [LAUGHTER] “Well, I love our country, but America is for them too.” “Well—” “One of the things in this scene that’s creating a lot of tension is that Jerry Falwell, Vincent D’Onofrio, is sort of the alpha dog in this group of people. And so we are focusing in on this brewing rivalry of ideologies between these two characters.” “God is my witness. I made a pledge to continue to expose the sins in this country.” “I think Tammy doesn’t pick up on some of the tension that she’s creating. And if she is, she’s certainly not letting on.” “You know, I don’t think of them as homosexuals. I just think of them as other human beings that I love. You know, we’re all—” “That central conflict that is sort of ignited in this scene between her and Jerry Falwell ends up being the central theme of Tammy Faye’s arc throughout the entire film.”
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If you were watching television in America in the 1970s and ’80s — the old three-network days that now seem as distant as the horse-and-buggy era — you could hardly miss Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Upbeat evangelists with the upper Midwest in their voices, they helped expand Christian broadcasting from a niche into an empire via their PTL satellite network.
Even if you missed them in their prime, you couldn’t avoid the spectacle of their downfall — an end-of-the-80s tabloid scandal involving adultery, hypocrisy and financial shenanigans. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and sentenced to federal prison. His wife (who had divorced him a few years later) was razzed by talk-show hosts and standup comedians across the land for her gaudy makeup, her big hair and her full-throated singing voice.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” directed by Michael Showalter from a script by Abe Sylvia, tells this story dutifully, following the familiar showbiz biopic sequence of rise, ruin and redemption. We start out in Eisenhower-era Minnesota, where Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) grows up in the shadow of a pious, unsmiling mother (Cherry Jones). When she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at Bible college, it seems like a providential match.
Jim preaches a version of the prosperity gospel, insisting to his flock that God wants them to be rich. This optimism, and the worldly ambition that comes with it, appeal to Tammy. A natural performer onstage (and later, on camera), she brings maternal warmth, wholesome sex appeal and relentless good cheer to their itinerant ministry. And puppets, too.
Showalter’s film shares its title and its plot with a 2000 documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and also sympathy for its subject. Tammy Faye (who died in 2007) may have been an over-the-top spendthrift and an exhausting media personality, but she was also, these movies insist, sincere in her faith and generous in her view of humanity. Unlike the reverends Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), powerful allies of her husband, she resisted mixing religion and politics, and defied their anti-feminist, anti-gay culture-war ideology.
The documentary version, which includes voice-over narration by RuPaul, understands Tammy Faye as a camp figure, earning both sympathy and ridicule, and emerging with a measure of dignity intact. Showalter and his cast lack the style and the nerve to convey either the wildness of the character and her milieu or the pathos of her story.
The narrative beats — Tammy Faye’s temptation (in the presence of a hunky record producer played by Mark Wystrach), Jim’s betrayal, Falwell’s treachery — seem almost generic. The performances, while hardly subtle, feel smaller than life. Garfield mugs and emotes with sketch-comedy abandon, and while Chastain tries for more depth and nuance, she is trapped by a literal-minded script and overwhelmed by hair, makeup and garish period costumes.
The Bakkers were many things to many people: appalling, inspiring, laughable, sad. This movie succeeds in making them dull.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Rated PG-13. A handful of commandments violated. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters.