“The eyes of Tammy Faye”, commented: a disenchanted story of religion, politics, sex and money
I’m not religious, but I confess that I am fascinated by cinematic depictions of religious fervor. An idea so powerful that it takes over a character and expresses itself in flamboyant rhetoric, with extravagant performances to match, is, in my opinion, an irresistible spectacle. (“Marjoe” and “Red Hook Summer” are two favorites.) “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the new film about the rise and fall of evangelical star Tammy Faye Bakker, starring her first husband, preacher Jim Bakker , falls into this category of films and, at its best, takes its religious themes in fascinating directions that set the stage for deservedly fervent acting. Unfortunately, these highlights are only intermittent, due to the idiosyncrasies of the film’s direction and the film’s deference to the conventions of the bio-pic genre.
In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, the story of the rise is much more substantial than that of the fall. The film’s director, Michael Showalter, and its star, Jessica Chastain, display a shared enthusiasm for the idiosyncrasies of the story and its titular protagonist, and the film vibrates with the energies upon which the Bakkers’ career is built. Tammy Faye’s story begins as a child (played as a child by Chandler Head) in 1952 in a small town in Minnesota, where her mother, Rachel Grover (Cherry Jones), is a small church pianist. evangelical. Strongly critical and coldly interested, Rachel – who is divorced from Tammy Faye’s father – bans the young girl from the church in order to experience the local scandal the divorce has sparked. Yet young Tammy Faye is strong-willed and drawn to the ecstatic actions of the church. “Stop playing,” Rachel slams, when her daughter makes emoticons at the table; at church, where Tammy Faye speaks in tongues and goes so far as to urinate on herself, the child discovers that she can get away with playing, and even gaining approval for it. Yet even in those early scenes of religious possession, I felt an unofficial hand turning the pages of the drama too quickly, bringing to light character traits that would fit like jigsaw pieces into the rest of the plot, instead of diving into the underlying ardor, the typically Christian ecstasy, on which the whole film depends.
Nonetheless, the story of how Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield), two twenty-something students at a Bible college in Minneapolis, reunite in 1960 — and how they make a name for themselves together in the years sequences – expands through multiple settings filled with captivating detail. Tammy Faye defies school by wearing makeup; Jim challenges the austerity of the institution by preaching a gospel of prosperity. At a picnic, Jim confesses his guilty love of rock and roll; Tammy Faye, a gifted singer, makes him dance. And the two, soon after, defy the school by getting married and are expelled as a result. Rachel, questioning her daughter, asks, “Did you know there was a rule against getting married?” Jones’ cutting delivery of those first two words is a film highlight – and what Tammy Faye knew, and when, turns out to be the very pivot of the story to come.
Tammy Faye and Jim possess a natural theatrical flair; they hit the road as traveling preachers and hope to gain enough followers to start their own church. Instead, they meet Pat Robertson (played by Gabriel Olds) and end up hosting a children’s show on his television channel. The couple have no problem balancing their religious devotion with their worldly desires for pleasure, comfort and admiration – and they quickly recognize the potential for power and wealth that televangelism offers. (The admiration Tammy Faye craves the most is her mother’s; the film hints that Tammy Faye’s greed is primarily aimed at getting Rachel’s approval.) Tammy Faye’s vision and drive are at the forefront. source of the couple’s success. It’s Tammy Faye who creates and voices the puppet that gives the show its appeal, and who urges Jim to aim higher and compete with Robertson by hosting an adult show. When Jim becomes a star with this show, leaving Tammy Faye stuck at home, she yearns to get back into the public spotlight, and to do so, she urges Jim to start his own television channel. In a moving scene, set in 1971, amidst the jaw-dropping splendor of the Robertsons’ lavish estate in Hot Springs, Virginia, Tammy Faye’s boldness and energetic principle are on full display. There, even while waddling her newborn baby, she resists sitting with the women to share their occasional gossip; instead, she sets up the table where Jim, Pat, and another powerful preacher, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), discuss business.
At this gathering, Tammy Faye overcomes other obstacles she faces in the evangelical world. She refuses to defer to Falwell’s authority, calling him “Jerry” when he would prefer “Reverend Falwell”, and she defies his fulminations against homosexuals, stating that they also deserve Christian love. Years later, she puts that principle into action, wholeheartedly and bravely, as she and Jim are big TV stars with huge audiences and major financial empires to maintain. At the heart of the film, in a scene set in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Tammy Faye warmly interviews a gay Christian pastor named Steve Pieters (played by Randy Havens), who has AIDS, and she urges her audience to follow her on the path to acceptance and love. Yet his seemingly liberal form of evangelism antagonizes Falwell and the Reagan-era Republican Party of which he had become a stalwart. (In the film, Jim is also portrayed as a major Reagan supporter.) When accusations of financial impropriety are leveled against the Bakkers, Falwell, posing as the couple’s ally, relies on the scandal to get rid of and its pesky freethinker movement.
Sex and politics are inseparably linked in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Jim’s sexual indifference to Tammy Faye strains their relationship even before they are embroiled in a scandal. After his seemingly unconsummated banter with a record producer named Gary Paxton (played by Jim Wystrach), Jim forces Tammy Faye – a doting wife who obediently obeys – into humiliating confessions and apologies on air. Jim’s legal difficulties, related to the misuse of church funds, involve a sex scandal. The film depicts him as hiring a prostitute, one time only – in response to Tammy Faye’s ostensible infidelity – then pouring silent money to keep the affair quiet. (Real-life reports at the time were far more serious: A church secretary named Jessica Hahn accused Bakker of rape, and later received a reward from the church coffers for her silence.) In the film, Jim is also accused of continuing same-sex relationships, beginning even before the couple married. Conflicted and tormented Tammy Faye becomes addicted to prescription drugs and begins behaving erratically – but remains the mastermind of the operation, helping Jim strike deals that are beyond his reach. As the walls begin to close in on them, she nevertheless pretends to be unaware of his financial shenanigans.
Given the tangle and turbulence of the couple’s relationship, politics, fame and business, the gap between Tammy Faye’s public persona and her private beliefs should be at the heart of the drama. What did she know or suspect of Jim’s sex life? What did she think of the politics of the day, be it civil rights, abortion, or Reagan? Was she aware of how Jim was running – or rather, mismanaging – the business? (Or how could she not have been aware of it?) What she knows, when she knows it, how she reconciles her knowledge and her actions – these questions are the emotional engine of the film, the emotional core of the character. However, the answers to these questions are left out of the film entirely, perhaps for fear that a display of more conservative views of the real Tammy Faye would alienate moviegoers from the character. There’s also a seemingly prideful and avaricious side to the character, involving what appears to be a compulsive buying habit, but that dimension too is entirely ignored except in empathetic relation to his desperate efforts to bond with his mother – again once, as if the film skillfully preserved her ability to be seen as a heroine.