A Beautiful Mess: On “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”Roundup
tags: Christianity, popular culture, evangelicalism, television, Tammy Faye Bakker
Emily Suzanne Johnson is a historian and professor based in Indiana. Her book This Is Our Message explores the lives and work of prominent evangelical women, including Tammy Faye Bakker. She is now working on two separate books, on Dolly Parton and Satanism.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021), starring Jessica Chastain, is the latest attempt to tell the story of Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker), once one of the most famous women in America. It is well acted, well funded, and beautifully designed. It should work, but it doesn’t.
For one, the film doesn’t seem to know who its audience is — or how much that audience already knows about Tammy Faye. A pastiche of well-produced scenes, the movie never becomes a coherent whole. Those who know Tammy Faye’s story will be frustrated by inaccuracies and loose ends. Those who are learning about her for the first time may have trouble following the plot.
A brief introduction, then, to Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker: they were televangelists at the height of televangelism in the 1970s and ’80s. Their charismatic, colorful Christian empire included a 24-hour television network (a relative novelty at the time), various charitable endeavors, and even a theme park complete with waterslides. They were American celebrities, too, and not just in evangelical circles. Tammy Faye became best known for the extravagant makeup that ran down her face whenever she cried. And she cried often — tears of joy and compassion and sadness and stress. She was a glittering disco ball of emotion and empathy.
It all fell apart in the late ’80s when Jim was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy related to some truly sketchy fundraising. Around the same time, Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary, came forward to reveal that Jim and his personal assistant had coerced her into sex when she was only 21. Jim, 40 years old at the time, used $279,000 of the ministry’s money to buy Hahn’s silence. (Hahn has said that she prefers not to think of this as rape, and Jim was not charged with that crime.)
After the scandal, Tammy Faye was left to pick up the pieces. She tried and failed to rebuild her ministry and then emerged into a surprising second act. She befriended RuPaul, hosted a short-lived talk show with a gay co-host in the 1990s, and even wrote an advice column for a queer youth magazine. The upshot of every columnwas, be yourself, love yourself, and forget the haters. A 2000 documentary, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, narrated the story of her reinvention as a queer icon, even as it made that reinvention into a reality.
Enter Chastain, who produced and stars in the new film. She has said that she was inspired by the documentary to craft a biopic that would go beyond the late-night parodies and present Tammy Faye in all of her contradictions. After the scandal, Tammy Faye’s high-pitched voice, gobs of makeup, and frequent bursts of tears made her easy to caricature. Without dampening these characteristics, Chastain manages to portray Tammy Faye as a deeply sympathetic character.
Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker also achieves a nuanced portrait of a man now hated by many. He captures the televangelist’s charisma and boyish charm, alongside his toxic ambition, selfishness, and profound desire to be popular among powerful people. Even as Jim gradually becomes a villain in the film, Garfield keeps these complexities in tension. And the two leads share a remarkable chemistry. It’s a real challenge to portray the evolution of two people and their relationship over the course of three decades, but Chastain and Garfield are a compelling couple throughout, from the Bakkers’ adorable college courtship to the presentation of divorce papers in a prison visiting room.
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