The Eyes of Tammy Faye

As a young girl, Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) wasn’t allowed in Church because she would remind the congregation of her remarried mother’s divorce.  Years later, she’ll return to her mom (Cherry Jones) and stepdad’s (Fredric Lehne, "The Greatest Showman")       as a Christian college dropout with a big surprise – new husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield).  Tammy’s mother smells something wrong with Jim’s prosperity theology long before he hits the airwaves, cautioning her daughter that a blind follower becomes blind in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

Laura's Review: B-

There’s a whole lot of moralizing going on in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a film determined to paint her as the Martha Mitchell of Televangelism, but apparently no one listened, least of all the woman who seemed shocked that her lush lifestyle was acquired by fraud (maybe she’s the Carmela Soprano of Televangelism).  Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) may have had love in her heart for all, even the homosexuals who set Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio) to spitting nickels, but it is difficult to embrace a woman this delusional, whose love of the television camera blinded her to the betrayal of her audience.

'Nurse Jackie's' Abe Sylvia adapts Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's 2000 documentary, but despite a 126 minute running time, much, like Tammy Faye’s second marriage and a stint in rehab, is skipped over while such startling events as the labor-inducing sexual intercourse she enjoys with ‘Monster Mash’ music producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach) appear to have sprung from someone’s imagination (Paxton insisted their relationship was proper, although Tammy Faye reportedly had quite the crush on him).  The film fails to dig deep, instead traipsing along as Tammy Faye sings at the drop of a hat and Jim finagles pouts and avoids marital sex.  We never even learn just why Tammy Faye’s look evolved from fake eyelashes to outright gargoyle, although it’s a solid allegory for the evolution of the Bakkers’ religious racket.

Once we get past Tammy Faye’s childhood, watching the Bakkers’ courtship and newlywed days is intolerable, like listening to two leering Bible thumpers after huffing helium.  They hit the Christian circuit appealing to kids with Tammy’s puppets and happen to be in the right place at the right time when their car is stolen outside a motor inn, just in time to run into a helpful man who happens to work at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network.  The Bakkers have an in and Chastain’s performance settles down into something a lot more interesting.

‘She’s a real firecracker,’ Falwell tells Bakker after Tammy Faye skips the women’s’ tables at a cookout to sit with the boys and speak her mind.  It is at the Robertsons’ home where Jim and Tammy Faye see what they aspire to – a palatial home whose mistress wears a gown and mink coat at a poolside barbecue.  Jim pitches his ‘700 Club’ for late night hours and is soon surpassing his envious mentors.  As Jim builds his empire, including Christian-themed amusement parks and shopping malls, the calls for ‘doubled’ pledges rises (he notes his son’s birth as an exceptional fund raiser) as do alarming newspaper headlines.  Jim, who’s always too tired, too stressed or too disgusted to have sex with his wife, enjoys physical tussles with Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi, "The Irishman") that Tammy notes with alarm.  With everything teetering on the verge of financial ruin and scandal, Falwell steps in to ‘help’ and stabs them in the back.

Director Michael Showalter ("Hello, My Name Is Doris," "The Big Sick") appears swamped by his material here, its messaging often at odds with itself.  Tammy Faye’s mom, our moral compass, is eventually talked into a fur coat, one which she hides from Falwell because it was ‘procured by her daughter’s hard work.’  Say what?  We hear how Bakker helped Ronald Reagan get elected and Falwell mentions that Republicans can’t win without them, but there is no attempt made to explain just why this is, although the movie sure paints great swaths of America as embracing bamboozlement.  And although Chastain throws herself into this role, eventually achieving a small amount of sympathy, we never really understand Tammy Faye other than she was a woman who embraced all while taking their hard earned cash.  The makeup and appliances are piled on until Chastain more resembles Sharon Osborne crossed with Divine than Tammy Faye.  Garfield’s thin lipped take on Bakker is whiny.  Cherry Jones and Vincent D'Onofrio give the film’s best performances.       

The production is full of tacky excess, the Bakker home as fitting a place for Liberace as the Televangelists.  The filmmakers missed an opportunity ripe for a comic end scroll in failing to mention Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent downfall, seeing as how his dad holds the upper hand here.

Robin's Review: C

In the 1970s and 80s, Tammy Faye and husband Jim Bakker rose from humble obscurity to head the largest religious broadcasting network (and theme park) in the world. But, their excessive lifestyle, financial scandal and rivalries would bring down the televangelist empire in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

To be honest, I spent my formative adult years and beyond unwillingly exposed, and dutifully ignoring, the late night bombardment of televangelist preaching (some, like me, may call ranting) of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson. And, they were always the same, selling hate, bigotry and intolerance in the name of a virtuous god.

Then, along came Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and director Michael Showalter, adapting the 2000 documentary, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” chronicles the life of the femme half of that evangelical duo. Going through Tammy Faye’s life story, the filmmakers touch on all the parts of that long and controversial life.

Yes, all the parts of Tammy Faye’s life are there but the filmmakers are selective in what they pay attention to in that life. More attention is given to the private moments in the marriage of the PTL founders than to the enormous scandal that brought the Bakker Empire down to its knees. That part is, to me, glossed over in favor of being supportive of Tammy Faye and her “love for everyone” credo.

It took a while, like half of the film, before Jessica Chastain was able to wrap herself in the role of Tammy Faye Bakker. Up to that point, I found that the evangelist is shown as a caricature of a pretty Kewpie doll. It is not until the TF that the world came to know rises up – the title says it all – that the actor does something with a character buried in clownish makeup.

The real problem I have with “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the casting of Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker. His “praise the lord” preacher character has so little on-screen charisma that he would not have a flock, never mind a televangelist empire. It is a one note role that never develops beyond that.

I am amazed that I gave “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” as much attention as I did to review the movie, considering I spent less time giving her any mind at all for the bulk of my life.

Searchlight opens "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" in theaters on 9/17/21.