Biopic offers a reductive look at a complicated icon
Documentary leads to docudrama as The Eyes of Tammy Faye adapts the story of the queen of televangelism and gay icon Tammy Faye Bakker Messner from Fenton Bailey’s and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The documentary, narrated by RuPaul, is an affectionate look at a colorful public figure whose rise and fall rocked evangelical Christianity in the ’80s. The new Hollywood version puts Jessica Chastain in a quart of makeup and a couple pounds of prosthetics to more fully probe Tammy Faye’s vulnerabilities, flex her strengths, and highlight her role in the lgbtq+ community. But does either portrayal tell the whole story?
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Michael Showalter
Written by: Abe Sylvia
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Randy Havens
Running time: 126 mins
Chastain also executive produced her passion project, teaming with director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer) in a departure from his comedic background. He’s the Jim to her Tammy, his straightforward cinematography letting her glittery character acting take center stage. It’s hard to do anything but point and shoot the madness: the movie opens on an emotionally neglected young Tammy thrashing around and speaking in tongues in a Michigan Pentecostal church. “She peed herself; it’s a miracle!” shouts an ecstatic parishioner. The film suggests that Tammy learns that having a special connection to God also means being loved and accepted by his followers; the lonely, people-pleasing child of divorce finds her love of the spotlight.
At Bible college she meets Jim Bakker, played accurately by Andrew Garfield, and they
promptly marry and become traveling evangelists. Tammy’s mother, fellow gay icon Cherry Jones, scoffs at their unshakable belief that God will make them wealthy, but they put in their dues: a montage of increasingly fancy wigs and outfits shows the Bakkers build Praise the Lord Ministries, a multi-million-dollar gospel television empire that boasted the gargantuan resort/theme park Heritage USA. Tammy isn’t a wallflower like the other ministers’ wives, and we watch her confidently vamp with Jim onstage. But the movie doesn’t address her very traditional views on feminism and gender roles in marriage: “I love being under submission to my husband,” she declared. “I believe in keeping the male ego intact.”
Remember, Jesus accepts money orders too!
Garfield oozes effete sleaze as he begs for cash to keep the gravy train chugging, while dipping into it liberally to maintain their tony lifestyle. Showalter holds the camera steady as bike-riding chimps, Christmas musicals and penis pumps parade across the PTL set to Jim’s creepy signoff, “Jesus loves you, he really really does!” and the money keeps pouring in. Their lives become a soap opera swollen with ennui, furs, sex, jewels, and secrets; Tammy goes from belting gospel songs in a wig collection that would make Moira Rose envious to popping Ativan and watching from the literal shadows as her husband wrestles suggestively with his male assistant.
Chastain’s makeup gets progressively heavier as Tammy feels increasingly isolated in her marriage and distant from her faith. The actress says the 7-hour makeup process left her “panicky and afraid”; intentional or not, it likely brought her closer to reflecting Tammy’s actual state of mind. Her desolation finds outlet in a romance with a music producer, which the 2000 documentary doesn’t address.
Eventually Jim’s affair with a church secretary (and a resulting $350,000 hush payout) leaked to the press and unraveled the extensive fraud behind his bloated ministry. The film hints at Bakker’s reportedly fluid sexuality in a couple scenes, but the documentary didn’t devote a single frame to the topic. (Messner may have been hedging her bets, since she’s said she’d be willing to work with her ex-husband again.) Bakker’s excesses, while taking a back seat to Tammy Faye’s glitz in the film, are the narrative engine running the kind of juicy story that wins Oscars: silly religious rich people fall from grace, preferably through sex, and are forced to admit they’re human just like us.
The drama writes itself: the conniving Jerry Falwell, played to perfection by Vincent D’onofrio, pushed the Bakkers out of their own ministry after a jury convicted Jim of mishandling PTL funds in the late ’80s. Garfield ages gamely as he serves four years in federal prison, his jowl prosthetics thickening every couple scenes until Tammy divorces him. (Jim Bakker is still on Christian television today selling buckets of apocalypse chow with his second wife, and recently paid fines for shilling fake Covid cures.)
The church boxed out Tammy Faye, but the gay community embraced her after a groundbreaking interview with a gay AIDS-positive pastor on her talk show. As she chirps to a scowling Falwell, “We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make any junk!” Messner also advocated for drug and marriage counseling and sex education, and Showalter highlights the Reagan-era culture wars by pitting her inclusive values against Falwell’s conservatism.
The gay community saw her as a fellow underdog and survivor: “I think I have a lot in common with the gay population because they’ve been made fun of and put down and misunderstood and have really had a rough row to hoe in life. They identify with me and I certainly identify with what they’re still going through.” She appeared at Pride events and performed with drag personalities, but what the doc and the movie omit is the fact that Messner refused to advocate for gay marriage or participate in Pride parades, saying “I don’t think they need them… I believe that people should have a bit of class about them.” When asked by a young gay person for advice on being accepted by parents her reply was, “Don’t throw your gayness in anyone’s face, just live your life. But I also think honesty is always the best policy.”
But in its determination to paint her as a camp icon, the film reduces her to the same two-dimensionality as the Saturday Night Live skits that mocked her tears and makeup. It also turns her religious beliefs into a crude narrative crowbar to crack open her motivations and infantilizes her convictions as mere internal monologue, showing scenes of her whispering to the sky with clasped hands and mentally responding to herself. It’s a jarringly glib contrast to the real Tammy Faye’s final interview before her cancer death in 2007: ravaged to ghoulishness, weighing 65 pounds, she was barely able to whisper, “I talk to God every day. And I say, ‘God, my life is in your hands. And I trust you with me.'”
In the end, whether it’s Jesus or gender performance, Tammy Faye is only welcome as a beaming, love-bombing mascot, a Bible-y Dolly Parton. Interestingly, the movie uses Betty Boop as a reference for her personality but in Messner’s own words, “most people think I’m a cartoon character–like I’m Betty Boop–that’s how I’m portrayed, not as a real person. But I’m a grandma. I do all my own housework. I scrub commodes.” Tammy’s actual role model was Lucille Ball.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a politically agreeable Oscar biopic, ticking the boxes of disgrace and redemption, wild costumes, prosthetics to show aging, and unhappy rich people. But it muddles Messner’s complicated legacy by the omissions and biases of both portrayals; Jessica Chastain is an extraordinary performer, but as Tammy Faye she’s just a very, very skilled mimic. The movie offers a fuller fictionalized look at Tammy’s private griefs and motivations, but it’s just as blinkered and reductive as the evangelical world was in recognizing the complexity of her personhood.