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Film Review: The Eyes Of Tammy Faye

Author: Kristina Cooper

Picture: Kova PR

Film Review: The Eyes Of Tammy Faye

The story of televangelists Tammy and Jim Bakker, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, is something of a morality tale, whose protagonists are treated as naive rather than evil, says Kristina Cooper.

Tammy and Jim Bakker were a high profile American televangelist couple, who ran the Praise the Lord Television network, and who came to grief in the 1980s in a celebrated fraud/misappropriation of funds scandal.  Jim Bakker was jailed while Tammy, with her panda eyes and sequined shoulder pads, was pilloried in the popular press as much for her inexorable taste as her excessive lavish spending. The couple were an embarrassment to the serious church.

Thus it is interesting that their lives and ministry should be the subject of film produced by and starring award winning Hollywood actress Jessica Chastain, who plays Tammy Faye Bakker. It is a tour de force on Chastain’s part, as she plays Tammy, from the moment she meets Jim (played by Andrew Garfield) at Bible College as a fresh faced young woman, to the heavily made up rather grotesque woman at the end of her life. Despite the extravagant wigs and OTT outfits, (one of the delights of the film) Chastain manages to preserve Tammy’s essential sweetness and innocence underneath all this. 

Watch the trailer here:

A Surprisingly Sympathetic Portrayal

I was fascinated that the Bakkers' lives would even be considered suitable material for a Hollywood film, and interested to see how the couple and their Christian faith would be portrayed. To my surprise, the film was surprisingly sympathetic to the couple and their faith was not mocked. The wrongs of their lives were not hidden, but because of the nuanced script and performances by Chastain and Garfield (who played the hero in Hacksaw Ridge), you went away from the film with less judgement and more understanding and compassion for the reasons they behaved the way they did.

Both Faye and Bakker came from poor backgrounds and simply wanted the lifestyles and success they saw among the established Christian leaders around them. The couple early on realised there needed to be a bit more fun in faith if they wanted to reach their contemporaries. Beginning with puppet shows, they moved on to chat shows, and tv specials with singing and dancing. The gospel itself might have got a bit sidelined in the process but The Praise the Lord TV became the largest Christian network in the world. 

The couple then went on to develop USA Heritage a Christian theme park. But all this, together with their lavish lifestyles, was sucking up more and more money, and their debts mounted.  Clearly out of their depth,but unwilling to face reality, they continued to behave like teenagers out on the town with dad’s credit card.

An Interesting and Entertaining Film

A precursor to Oprah Winfrey and other chat shows where guests bear all, Tammy paved the way, sharing everything about her life and thoughts, without filter.  This proved to be pure television gold, which her husband cannily realised and exploited to get viewers to phone in donations to keep their empire afloat. Thus Tammy shared everything from childbirth experiences to infidelity on screen.  

Their story is a something of a morality tale and a reminder how dangerous it is to try and serve God and mammon, as one will ultimately prevail. But from the film, based on a documentary about them, they were not evil people. The real villain of the piece emerges rather as Jerry Falwell (Vincent d’Orio) the leader of the  religious right, who despised them as  hicks and while pretending friendship, sets them up and manoeuvres things to take control, when everything collapses around them. An interesting and entertaining film, with surely an Oscar for Chastain?

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