For all the meticulous detail in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE about the early life of Tammy Faye Bakker, this biopic about the rise of fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker has an ending that is curiously sparse. It’s not just Tammy Faye’s second marriage to Roe Messner that is erased, though he does appear as the Bakker’s marriage and empire crumbles. It’s also where the filmmakers choose to end the story. Not with Tammy Faye’s image resurrection from an object of ridicule to one that is universally beloved. No, instead of the second act that included an acclaimed documentary of the same name, a talk show with J.M. J. Bullock, and a courageous battle with the cancer that eventually killed her in 2007, we are left with Jessica Chastain singing a rousing, evangelical version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic to an audience that eventually succumbs to her eccentric brand of charisma. Even the requisite summation at the end, where a line or two of follow-up appears with a picture of the real people portrayed in the film fails to mention any of that, though it does speak to her work with the LGBTQ community. For a story that paints Tammy Faye as a woman who quite literally took her own place at the table of evangelical power, it seems a disservice.
Perhaps Chastain, who delivers an impeccable performance of drive and innocence that never resorts to caricature, is planning a sequel. I hope so.
As for the film before that disappointing ending, it is an absorbing revelation about the woman who wore too much makeup, and kept her feelings too close to the surface. We come away with an empathy for the unloved child who hungered for God’s love, as well as her mother’s, who instinctively channeled her own disappointments and insecurities into a mission to make everyone around her feel unconditionally loved. A mission that also saw her pushing her milquetoast of a husband (Andrew Garfield) to the dizzying heights of a televangical empire that neither of them was equipped to run. A mission that gave pause to preachers and parishioners who missed that part of the bible that directed true Christians to love their neighbors as themselves.
The journey to the top is fascinating. From the child Tammy Faye, barred from church because of her mother’s divorce speaking in tongues when finally forcing her way in to the sanctuary to the delight of the congregation, to her first meeting with Jim at the bible college they both attend, where he preaches a proto-prosperity gospel to the consternation of his teacher who shows similar consternation about Tammy Faye’s use of make-up.
Their precipitous rise is echoed in the montage of years passing as they break with Pat Robertson’s attempt to co-opt their niche on his network, CBN, and form their own, even bigger one, PTL. Along the way, Jim becomes overwhelmed with debt and the subtlety depicted struggles with his gay impulses, while Tammy Faye faces her own temptations with a hunky music producer (Mark Wystrach), and the pills she takes to keep going through Jim’s emotional and physical rejections.
Jim does not come across well here. Impecunious from the start, he lacks the people skills to find the fame the craves, while his brand of Christianity shows a distinct lack basic smarts or of either kindness or conviction. His son’s birth becomes a way of increasing donations. His boast to Jerry Falwell, Sr (Vincent D’Onofrio, who nails sanctimonious contempt with frightening clarity) about his ratings serves to incite a greedy envy in his rival that will add the necessary impetus to crush the Bakkers when their failings become public.
The story is well-known. The seduction of wealth, the convenient conscience about how the money pouring in was spent, and the sexual scandal that toppled it all. What THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE tells, though, is how the heroine of our story embodies the definition of true Christianity with her boundless love, and how she refused to be defined by the narrow constrictions of the powerful men around her. She smiles and takes it all in stride despite the pain. She becomes the definition of radical compassion. With the implacably disapproving mother (a terrifying Cherry Jones) with never a good word to say about her oldest child, she doesn’t dwell on her own hurt, but tells those around her that her mother has never had enough love, and that needs to change. For her television audience, she tells them about penile implants to make their marriages better. She also does the unthinkable. She suggests to Falwell that religion should stay out of politics; she interviews an AIDS patient on her talk show in PTL, presenting the man as a human being fully worthy and deserving not just of God’s love, but of the love of his fellow humans not in spite of, but because he is who he is. For us, those were bold moves. As is made clear by the writing and Chastain’s inspired performance, it was fulfilling God’s word in its purest form. The naivete, and that’s how it’s presented, is anything but a failing. She may have seemed foolish to some, but she was nobody’s fool.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is an incisive takedown of hypocrisy masquerading as righteousness. Tammy Faye here becomes aspirational, forcing us to look at ourselves and why a nation felt the need to make fun of her appearance, and take the word of an evangelist who was obviously on the make. It’s powerful stuff.