The Eyes of Tammy Faye portrays a famous televangelist as a sympathetic but muddled character of contradictions
In the 1980s, Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim Bakker were riding high as the founders of the world’s largest religious broadcasting network as well as a Christian theme park in South Carolina. Yet in 1987 their enterprises started crashing down after Jim Bakker’s financial fraud and sexual improprieties hit The Charlotte Observer’s front page.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a new biopic directed by Michael Showalter, follows the Bakkers’ trajectory based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Jessica Chastain laudably portrays the titular Tammy Faye, imitating her giggle, mannerisms, and childlike conversational tone. Her make-up is obvious and overdone, like Bakker’s, whose signature look included long false eyelashes thick with black mascara, heavy eye shadow, and permanently ink-lined eyes, eyebrows, and lips. Actor Andrew Garfield captures well Jim Bakker’s initial earnestness and sincerity devolving into arrogance and self-righteousness.
The Bakkers, both from humble beginnings, met at the Assemblies of God’s North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. After marrying, they began a traveling children’s puppet ministry and eventually took it to Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, where the two also began The 700 Club. Broadcasts always included Tammy singing, which Chastain admirably replicates in the movie.
One of Jim Bakker’s early beliefs, “God does not want us to be poor,” permeated their ministry from the beginning, becoming part of that era’s prosperity gospel movement. The Bakkers lived lavishly, with multiple estates, two Rolls-Royces, a private jet, expensive clothes and jewelry, and an air-conditioned dog house.
They preached that listeners would be blessed by God if they gave to the couple’s PTL Satellite Network. In one scene, while trying to raise ministry funds, Jim tells his audience, “If you’re not giving, you can’t expect an abundance to come back to you.”
Despite realistic portrayals of Tammy Faye and Jim, it’s unclear how much liberty the film takes in embellishing the details—for instance, one scene shows premarital groping between Tammy and Jim, and the movie plays up a questionable relationship between Tammy and another man. It portrays Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in a negative light. Other cringeworthy moments depict Christians as dumb, gullible, manipulative, or greedily shrewd.
Tammy comes across as genuine, but viewers can’t help but wonder how she could be unaware they were scamming people as the couple lived opulently from ministry donations. She even bought her mother a fur coat and a house from ministry proceeds, calling them blessings from God. Her mother, herself a Pentecostal preacher, questioned—but accepted—the gifts.
Tammy’s mixed-up theology, combined with her seemingly sincere love for God and all types of people, makes her a sympathetic yet muddled character of contradictions.
The film, rated PG-13 for sexual content and prescription drug abuse, leaves Christian viewers repulsed to see God’s Word so misused and exploited. For more accuracy and only slightly less entertainment, skip the movie and rent the documentary.
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