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The Eyes of Tammy Faye offers a surprisingly balanced revelation of the ‘80s heydays of televangelism.

L’Oreal Waterproof Lash Out

Jim (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain)
Jim (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain)

Perhaps the biggest surprise is this dramatization — based on a 2000 documentary with the same title — doesn’t look at Tammy Faye Bakker as a complete oddity. There’s quite a bit of humanity in her portrayal, which is stunningly brought to life by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). It’s a marvel as Chastain channels the gamut, from the childlike voices of Tammy Faye’s puppeteering during children’s programming to her full throttle singing in front of the masses. Along the way, Chastain morphs from an adorable, utterly cute young lady to a woman hardened by betrayal, addiction and the weight of way too much concealer.

It can’t be said The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a “great” movie, but it is a beautiful one. Again, for a surprising reason. A lot of people will undoubtedly focus on the inner Rashomon-esque wheelings and dealings, the questionable ambitions fueled by greed. Most notably, the dubious motivations driving Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man) and the unexpected rivalry brought on by Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio, Full Metal Jacket), along with the political influence being flexed by the Moral Majority.

But to focus on the high-level greed and salacious allegations is to miss the heart of all this: Tammy Faye was an underappreciated trailblazer and quite possibly the most “woke” person in the 1980s, seeking to unite people regardless of their race, color, religion or — gasp — even their sexual orientation. She didn’t label people and she was woke in its purest and most positive form, much more so than the most liberal of the judgy-judgy that dominate social media today. She didn’t seek to cancel anybody, she simply sought to accept all people, even accept their differences.

Okay. Step back from the edge. This is a dramatization and it most certainly takes liberties with the facts in the name of narrative efficiency and to elicit certain emotional responses.

Was Tammy Faye truly as innocent as she’s portrayed here? Hard to say, but it does seem quite possible. As for Jim, no doubt the pressure of raising $1 million each week simply to keep the lights on would be quite a burden for anybody, but he’s still a troubling figure who remains hard to read.

Pearlygate

It’s a trip back in time, to the stunningly curious period of American history in the 1970s and ‘80s, when TV was filled with preachers — televangelists — like Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell. There were also Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller in his bedazzling Crystal Cathedral. Billy Graham was one high-profile preacher who managed to stay well above the fray, maintaining dignity and sincerity throughout.

The message was consistent and — loosely speaking — went something like this: earthly riches (and Heaven) are yours for the taking if you give to the ministry.

As the phones rang and donations — tithes — poured in, some good was done. There were some charities and well-meaning causes that benefited. But so too did the basest of human behaviors that tore through the souls of the more notorious televangelists.

Jimmy Swaggart got swept up in a scandal involving a prostitute (more than once) then offered a tearful — more tearful than usual — apology to the world. That was quite the black eye to causes like Falwell’s Moral Majority.

And then there were Jim and Tammy Faye. Their rise to global success — some 20 million viewers daily from 56 countries around the world — catapulted them into becoming the fourth largest TV network in the United States. And they had huge plans. A Christian-themed amusement and water park, Heritage USA, became the third most popular theme park in the US, behind only Disneyland and Disney World.

In 2021, it all seems like such a different world, not something from a scant 40 years in the rearview mirror. But it’s also a time that could quite possibly be the genesis for today’s version of televangelism, the gospel of prosperity, led now by Joel Osteen and others who can fill entire arenas on a weekly basis.

Take Two

The best way to fully appreciate this epoch is to watch the dramatization then check out the documentary, narrated by RuPaul.

In doing so, lost ideas are found. This drama starts with Chastain — as Tammy Faye — talking about her makeup. Her lips and eyes are permanently lined; they’re her trademarks, she says. But what’s lost here is the context. Tammy Faye is getting ready for a photoshoot. But before they can begin, they need to (try to) remove her makeup so they can reapply makeup for the camera. It’s a funny detail that doesn’t land quite right in the dramatization; the documentary helps to further flesh out the context.

Even so, taking in both versions doesn’t really leave behind a comprehensive understanding of all the machinations and societal impacts still being felt today.

As the Bakkers’ story unfolds, a creepy unease sets in. It’s the harsh reality that what transpired on programs like The 700 Club crossed the line and gradually went from mission-based evangelism to the grotesque reality of a soap opera playing out live, in front of millions. It was reality TV before reality TV became a thing. It was the attainment of a certain kind of notoriety that was unwanted; now, it seems as though it’s the type of notoriety some actively seek out.

Life Is a Stage

Tammy Faye sings
Tammy Faye sings

The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t about the details. Chastain, Garfield and D’Onofrio aren’t dead-ringer lookalikes like Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice and Taron Egerton as Elton John, but they certainly capture many of the mannerisms to represent the real people. Garfield has that crooked smile and speech patterns down pat and when he finally dons those windshield eyeglasses and musses his hair at the end, he begins to disappear into the role. Tammy Faye is trickier, but Chastain brings in a performance that’s something to behold.

While the immersion on that physical level comes up a little short, the movie thrives in the artistic flourishes.

There’s a scene in which Tammy Faye takes her mom (Cherry Jones, Erin Brockovich) shopping in a ritzy fashion store. As Mom tries on a fur coat, she’s put on a pedestal for all to see. It’s the quiet symbolism of that moment that reflects back on the internal state of the lead characters.

But, perhaps most effectively, there’s Tammy’s final performance in the movie. It’s in front of Oral Roberts’ congregation and, while the movie chooses to present an initially cold reception while the documentary makes it clear she was very well received, the emotional resonance of the scene comes alive as she sings The Battle Hymn of the Republic. There’s nobody behind her on the dark stage, at least not in the reality of the movie. But, in Tammy’s mind, she’s being backed up by a full-blown choir.

For a woman who rose from truly humble beginnings and went on to record 40 albums and produce two children, mastering the arts of children’s entertainment, preaching, singing and performing, only to have it all come tumbling down in scandals and further beaten back by cancer, Tammy Faye’s story is both oddly humorous and tragic.

The value in all of this isn’t in revisiting that ‘80s heyday. It’s in appreciating a woman with a real appreciation for perseverance. And, to that end, both versions of this story share a common message from Tammy Faye: You can’t move forward by looking in the rearview mirror of your life.