The Jim Bakker scandal is something that’s always eluded me as it happened long before I came to the US. I didn’t even realize there’s a Minnesota connection, which has become my adopted state for over 20 years. But of course over time I became familiar about them just from various news items about them, but this film is told solely from the perspective of Tammy Faye Bakker during the time she was married to Jim and part of The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club.
Jessica Chastain who not only stars in the film but also served as producer, paints a very sympathetic portrayal of Tammy Faye. Even from the poster, she is shown covering her most recognizable features, that is her heavily-made-up eyes the media dubbed ‘racoon eyes,’ but it’s enough to see part of her lid and thick layer of mascara. It seems the poster gives a bit of a glimpse of what we’re about to get in this biopic, which is based on the documentary of the same name.
The film opens with little Tammy (Chandler Head), a precocious girl who tries to be a part of the church service that she’s forbidden by her mom Rachel (Cherry Jones) to attend. She’s the only child out of Rachel’s eight children that’s born out of her marriage with her ex-husband, so as a child of divorce, she’s deemed unwelcome in the church. Despite that, Tammy Faye is portrayed to still have a close relationship with God, seen praying and even later attends North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). I have to admit it took me a while not to focus on the heavy prosthetics both actors wear… now, I’m not saying the make-up department didn’t do a good job, I just find their altered look, especially the swollen cheeks/jawlines a bit distracting.
Their whirlwind relationship turns to marriage, though at first they have to settle with living with Tammy Faye’s parents. Even as she’s now a grown woman, Rachel continues to be critical of her daughter and she doesn’t hide the fact that she doesn’t exactly approve of her daughter’s union with Jim. Soon, the two end up taking up the roles of traveling preachers and Tammy creating a puppet ministry for children. One fateful day while on the road, they serendipitously meet one of the producers for Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, and thus begin their televangelism ministry preaching what’s called the ‘Prosperity Gospel.’
Director Michael Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia tries to cramp a lot of information into a two-hour film, but I feel like the film doesn’t truly begin until the Bakkers begin the The PTL Club. Success soon follows, the couple live in a lavish home and Tammy would go on shopping sprees buying expensive fur coats for her and her mom. But with more popularity and wealth, the Bakkers’ marriage suffers. The film portrays Tammy as the one who is the victim here as Jim is distant and preoccupied with financial issues even as the PTL Club’s enterprise general millions of dollars (even up to $120 million annually in the 1970s). At the height of their success, the Bakkers even built a Christian retreat and theme park Heritage USA which ran for only a decade or so.
As for the dissolution of their marriage and Jim’s reported homosexual tendencies, the film didn’t really delve too deeply into it. Even the major rape scandal involving Jim’s former secretary Jessica Hahn (who isn’t mentioned by name here) is only mentioned briefly as Jim breaks down and confesses to his wife that he used PTL’s money to silence Hahn. I find it curious that Tammy Faye is portrayed as if she were blindsided by the fraud charges, as if she were not aware that PTL has been extorting money from their fans for over a decade. Even if she were blinded by the fame and glitzy lifestyle, it would be a stretch to imagine that she too was hoodwinked by Jim, as we’re led to believe. In any case, the collapse of the PTL is swift, and the Baptist televangelist Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) ends up taking over Bakkers’ reign of the organization.
The major highlight of The Eyes of Tammy Faye is Chastain’s performance that sways between giddy, campy, and emotionally moving that it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She even does her own singing which further prove that she is a woman of many talents. The film does highlight an aspect of Tammy Faye that perhaps most people didn’t know, that she became quite an icon in the LGBTQ community. The scene of her interviewing a gay minister suffering from AIDS is one of the few emotional moments in the film. There’s also a scene depicting her as somewhat of a feminist icon as well, as she brazenly joins the all-male table during a luncheon at Pat Robertson’s palatial estate.
Chastain completely embraces Tammy Faye and transformed herself to look the part. It’s apparent that the actress tackles this project as an admirer of the person she’s portraying, and the script is not subtle about it, either. Even when Tammy herself almost nearly succumb to infidelity with her recording producer Gary (Mark Wystrach), it was portrayed in a sympathetic light, that Gary is a good guy who appreciates her while Jim is too distracted to pay attention to her. The rest of the supporting cast didn’t get to shine as brightly as Chastain however. Garfield is a versatile actor but I don’t think this the script gives him much to do here and his character is portrayed as pretty one-note and even farcical. D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Falwell is bewildering, I kept thinking ‘why is he speaking like Fisk (the character he played in Netflix’s Daredevil series)?’ It’s not at all believable and his character is painted as the ‘villain’ of the piece.
Overall, I find the story fascinating, but a bit indulgent in its adulation over its subject matter. Showalter is known for rom-coms such as They Came Together, The Big Sick, so it’s a bit of an odd choice to direct this biopic. As I mentioned above about the poster, I don’t feel like we get the full picture of Tammy Faye. Yes the film depicts her as having prescription drug addiction, but otherwise she’s portrayed as a blameless woman. It doesn’t help that the film ends with a fantastical musical number that looks like something produced by PTL itself. Thus, despite the extensive amount of screen time, in the end it’s a pretty thin character study, as I don’t think I know that much more about Tammy Faye than I did before I saw the film.