By Beth Collins
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is the latest biopic that attempts to launch a defence for misunderstood women in history and popular culture. The film follows Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) from her humble upbringing and introduction to ecstatic worship, and follows her meteoric rise in the world of televangelism alongside her husband and preacher, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). As is a common theme, Tammy’s ambitions, ideas and successes were often attributed to Jim. We follow her struggle with her own innocent commitment to ‘love all people’ against the growing power of materialism, Jim’s greed, her own unhappiness and the strict rules of the Christian right.
The film seems unable to decide what to be. The camp, glittering excess of the Bakkers’ is depicted in the studio and their lavish mansion, but little time is given to their equally gaudy PLT projects like the Christian theme park Heritage USA, which was at one point ten times the size of California’s Disneyland. Whilst restraining the heights of PLT ambitions, the film also glosses over many of the intimate details of the Bakkers’ life, offering only innuendo of Jim’s alleged homosexuality or the rape claim made against him. We only see Tammy’s glittering tears as she determinedly closes her eyes to it all. As a result, the tone of the film is a little discordant, flitting between intimacy and extremity. Emotionally charged close-ups are intercut with lazy chronological montages of newspaper headlines. It’s a safe film. A biopic that gives everything a biopic should.
While the film is at times a connect-the-dots biopic, Jessica Chastain’s performance elevated The Eyes of Tammy Faye to Academy consideration. Chastain has proven herself a skilful actress in films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Interstellar (2014). As Tammy, she battles to bring forth this humanity through the Betty-Boop voice, false hair, and layers of cracked makeup that culminated in the cartoonish figure of Tammy Faye.
Tammy is a pitiful character, but one that arouses sympathy as she reveals herself as the heroine of the piece, defending the LGBTQ+ community and AIDs patients against the right-wing elements of the evangelists. Her persistent call to love people, all people, is Tammy’s most admirable quality.
However, the film completely missed the opportunity to explore the alliance of the evangelical ‘Moral Majority’ under Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) with the Republican Party during the 1980s. If Tammy’s notoriety for modern day audiences is her anachronistically progressive view on homosexuality and the AIDs pandemic, then perhaps the film should have been less concerned about offending Christian sensibilities and instead delved into contrasting the Moral Majority’s anti-gay efforts and their strong links with the Republican Party against Tammy’s love of diverse humanity. Despite this, the scene of Tammy’s genuine kindness with AIDs patient, Pieters, is poignant and highlights how non-normative sexuality and Christianity are not inherently incompatible. This simple suggestion of inclusivity has seen Tammy Faye heralded as a gay icon, reviving her once sullied image.
The same cannot be said for our overall impression of Jim Bakker. Jim’s evangelical views are interesting, to say the least. From the start he preached that ‘God doesn’t want us to be poor’, the excuse for his infatuation with US TV fame, mansion complexes and luxury clothing. The redemption of Jim by the end in his prison jumpsuit is minimal, but it seems that even that was too flattering a depiction. Bakker has recently made headlines for a $156,000 lawsuit brought against him and his southwestern Missouri church after he touted his ‘Silver Solution’ health supplement as a Covid cure at the start of the pandemic.
We see the story through Tammy’s eyes, as the title would suggest, and so Jim’s infidelity, financial manipulation and cruelty is seen only in glimpses. As the audience is bound to the naivety of Tammy there is a growing sense of unease as the murky underbelly of the PTL club rises closer to the surface whilst our titular character bounces on obliviously.
Had director, Michael Showalter been braver, perhaps the script would have questioned Tammy’s guilt more critically. Is she really blameless for the financial manipulation she was a part of? Does Tammy’s silence not implicate her? Or was it the patriarchal culture of her community that taught her to blindly trust in her husband?
The film leaves us with Tammy as a tattered ex-celebrity, hawking her ideas to low level TV stations, but the enduring final message is an ode to Tammy Faye. Though she was blind to the failings and ulterior motives of the surrounding men, Tammy Faye’s eyes arguably saw her faith’s Christian message more clearly than any of those around her: a love of all people.
Image: MisterHP7 via Wikimedia Commons