I had never heard of Jim and Tammy Bakker until the now infamous PTL scandal was revealed in the late 1980’s. Oh, I had heard of the Praise the Lord TV show, but had never seen it as it wasn’t shown in my area. Not that I would have watched it anyway, it wouldn’t have been my thing. My perception of the couple came from the news reports of the day. The skits that portrayed the couple during late night TV shows didn’t influence me all that much since they were centered more on Christian hypocrisy in general rather than the Bakker’s specifically.
Even though I wasn’t connected to this pair in any way, the whole situation still hurt. How could a couple of people who claimed to be followers of Christ live such a lavish lifestyle, cheat on their spouses and take financial advantage of their many fans? Unfortunately, abuse within the church continues today in many forms. Sometimes it’s money. Sometimes it’s sex. Sometimes it is just plain bullying. That’s why even though Jim and Tammy’s story is still relevant today.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a dramatization based on Fenton Bailey’s and Randy Barbato’s documentary of the same name. It is directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Jessica Chastain who also serves as one of the film’s producers. Chastain does an incredible job of turning this seemingly larger-than-life character that we all thought we knew into a more realistic person. Yes, Tammy was quirky. Yes, she loved her makeup and her “trademark eyelashes”, but as the film shows, she was pretty much the same person in front of the camera as she was behind the camera. She knew that she was a bit much for some people. She just was who she was. She loved everyone and wanted everyone else to experience the love of Jesus that she had found so many years earlier.
Tammy Faye was born in International Falls, in Minnesota in 1942, shortly after her pastoral parents got married. However, they divorced when Tammy was a young girl and Rachel (Cherry Jones) married a widower who had seven children of his own. Tammy was the oldest of all eight kids, but when the family went to church on Sundays, Tammy had to stay home. Early in the film, Rachel admits to Tammy that the only reason that the church tolerates her is because they need a piano player, but if Tammy comes to the services, it only serves as a reminder of her past sin. She then threatens Tammy saying that God will punish little girls like her who don’t listen to their mother.
However, on one Sunday, Tammy decided to visit the church on her own any, accepting Jesus Christ as her Savior and began speaking in tongues much to her mother’s horror. However, she was surprisingly accepted by the church, or at least that is how it was portrayed in the movie. Thus begins the difficult relationship between Tammy and her mother.
Tammy was into a poor family, so it isn’t clue how she was able to attend North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. It was there in 1960 when Tammy (now played by Chastain) met Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and it is pretty clear that two earnestly wanted to share the gospel to others. Perhaps her motivation was to receive love that she wasn’t able to receive from her mother. Perhaps his motivation was to make up for the love he didn’t get at his home. (The film doesn’t show Jim’s past life or even mention his parents.) We learn that he once served as a radio DJ playing “sinful” rock and roll music. He’s embarrassed by this fact, but Tammy finds it delightful. It is also clear that Jim seems to mix the “American Dream” ideal with biblical blessings and is reminded by his teachers that the Bible also talks about the blessing of “poor in spirit” too.
The movie suggests that the two had a whirlwind romance and eloped quickly to keep from engaging (and maybe failing) in premarital sex. But the school didn’t allow for students to marry, so they move in with Tammy’s parents. This is especially hard on Jim who feels like he failed Tammy with no income to support the couple and he worries that Rachel doesn’t like him. The two plan to travel the county with tent revival meetings. While Tammy makes her own puppet to speak to the children, Jim purchases a brand new car knowing that appearance is everything. It doesn’t take long to discover that Jim isn’t very good at managing money.
At this point in the story, the couple still appear to be on the right track and God continues to bless the couple bringing them to Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) Christian Broadcasting Network in 1966 to star on a children’s show and later as the first hosts of the late night talk show, The 700 Club. The movie doesn’t mention it, but the couple left CBN in 1972 to help create the Trinity Broadcasting Network with Paul and Jan Crouch but had a falling-out eight months later. This is when Jim and Tammy created their own PTL (Praise the Lord) network.
From here, the Bakker’s story begins to crumble. Insecure Jim is spending money that he doesn’t have to look successful among the other “big” preachers including the stoic Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) who I thought played the role a little too heavy-handed. He clashes with Tammy’s thoughts about women in ministry and her compassion for those living the margins and those living with AIDS who have been shunned from church.
As the couple succeeds in what appears to now be their mission instead of God’s, Tammy’s makeup gets darker and her outfits brighter. She doesn’t ask her husband how they are paying for everything but she certainly enjoys her mink coat and settles into her new lavish lifestyle. She invites her mother to see their home hoping to impress her. Again, Rachel is not pleased. Meanwhile, Jim begins pulling himself away from Tammy.
Strangely, The Eyes of Tammy Faye rarely shows any scenes with their children or any friendships of the two main leads except for Tammy’s friendship with her music producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach) whom she ends up having a brief affair with. Things just downhill from there. Tammy get addicted to pain pills, the couple build a Christian theme park offering special donation packages to their TV followers to pay for the place, Jim has his own affair with Jessica Hahn, etc. It all comes crushing down.
Despite all of this, the film doesn’t demonize Jim or Tammy’s characters but it doesn’t let them off the hook either. They were both are very smart and yet naïve at the same time making bad choices. They knew what they were doing was wrong or didn’t want to believe it. Perhaps the real villains in the story are those who never told the couple “no”. They didn’t seem to have any accountability until it was too late with Falwell having to straighten out the mess (and it turn making himself look even worse as a pastor of influence).
Chastain and Garfield are incredible as the Bakkers replaying real life scenes that we all know (like the infamous TV Nightline interview) verbatim to the real thing. They have the couple’s mannerisms down perfectly. Jessica even sings. Many times in fact and is quite good too. As a surprise, the real Tammy Sue Bakker sings one of her mother’s more famous songs during the end credits.
However, as good as this film is, it lacks a few things. A lot of information is thrown out in this long story but it really only scratches the surface. Perhaps it is the largeness of the characters that they are portraying, but this film fails to capture much sympathy or pull our heartstrings. I suspect that some of that had to do with the couple’s on-screen prayers that sound less than genuine and at times, almost a mockery.
Some people say that the more influence a man has with his ministry, the further away he becomes to God. That might be true. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an important cautionary tale of what happens when Christian leaders don’t surround themselves with good authority, but even so, scandals within the church continue to develop because of the very same reasons today. There is a saying that goes something like, “The bigger a man’s ministry gets, the further way he becomes from God his won’t be the last film to feature those things.
Main Image: Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios
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