A Beautiful Mess: On “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

November 16, 2021   •   By Emily Suzanne Johnson

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021), starring Jessica Chastain, is the latest attempt to tell the story of Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker), once one of the most famous women in America. It is well acted, well funded, and beautifully designed. It should work, but it doesn’t.

For one, the film doesn’t seem to know who its audience is — or how much that audience already knows about Tammy Faye. A pastiche of well-produced scenes, the movie never becomes a coherent whole. Those who know Tammy Faye’s story will be frustrated by inaccuracies and loose ends. Those who are learning about her for the first time may have trouble following the plot.

A brief introduction, then, to Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker: they were televangelists at the height of televangelism in the 1970s and ’80s. Their charismatic, colorful Christian empire included a 24-hour television network (a relative novelty at the time), various charitable endeavors, and even a theme park complete with waterslides. They were American celebrities, too, and not just in evangelical circles. Tammy Faye became best known for the extravagant makeup that ran down her face whenever she cried. And she cried often — tears of joy and compassion and sadness and stress. She was a glittering disco ball of emotion and empathy.

It all fell apart in the late ’80s when Jim was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy related to some truly sketchy fundraising. Around the same time, Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary, came forward to reveal that Jim and his personal assistant had coerced her into sex when she was only 21. Jim, 40 years old at the time, used $279,000 of the ministry’s money to buy Hahn’s silence. (Hahn has said that she prefers not to think of this as rape, and Jim was not charged with that crime.)

After the scandal, Tammy Faye was left to pick up the pieces. She tried and failed to rebuild her ministry and then emerged into a surprising second act. She befriended RuPaul, hosted a short-lived talk show with a gay co-host in the 1990s, and even wrote an advice column for a queer youth magazine. The upshot of every columnwas, be yourself, love yourself, and forget the haters. A 2000 documentary, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, narrated the story of her reinvention as a queer icon, even as it made that reinvention into a reality.

Enter Chastain, who produced and stars in the new film. She has said that she was inspired by the documentary to craft a biopic that would go beyond the late-night parodies and present Tammy Faye in all of her contradictions. After the scandal, Tammy Faye’s high-pitched voice, gobs of makeup, and frequent bursts of tears made her easy to caricature. Without dampening these characteristics, Chastain manages to portray Tammy Faye as a deeply sympathetic character.

Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker also achieves a nuanced portrait of a man now hated by many. He captures the televangelist’s charisma and boyish charm, alongside his toxic ambition, selfishness, and profound desire to be popular among powerful people. Even as Jim gradually becomes a villain in the film, Garfield keeps these complexities in tension. And the two leads share a remarkable chemistry. It’s a real challenge to portray the evolution of two people and their relationship over the course of three decades, but Chastain and Garfield are a compelling couple throughout, from the Bakkers’ adorable college courtship to the presentation of divorce papers in a prison visiting room.

The film’s design is impressive — opulent and detailed, subtly enveloping the viewer in Tammy Faye’s narrative arc. Like Dorothy’s prequel in Kansas, Tammy Faye’s childhood is visually drab. The grays and browns of her home life contrast with the ivory of her church, so bright it seems like a color in comparison. By the height of her fame, the screen is awash in super-saturated blues, pinks, yellows, and greens — an accurate reflection of the ministry’s aesthetic that also drives home the emotional intensity of this period in Tammy Faye’s life.

There is just so much that the film gets right, but its triumphs are overshadowed by odd choices that confound its message.

Though the biopic is based on the documentary, it ends well before the documentary was filmed and even before Tammy Faye’s surprising second act. Instead, it concludes while Tammy Faye is still struggling to put her life together, divorcing Jim, embarrassing herself in a ridiculous television pitch, and cheerily introducing herself to her snickering teenage neighbors. As the film comes to a close, it casts Tammy Faye as a kind of sad clown and leaves out some of the most interesting parts of her story.

The final scene makes an attempt at a redemptive arc that ultimately only underscores Tammy Faye’s failures. After so much rejection, Tammy Faye is buoyed by an invitation to sing at Oral Roberts University, one of the most famous and most conservative evangelical colleges in the United States. She performs enthusiastically, backed by a choir in bright pink robes, with sparkling lights and balloons festooning the stage. But cutaways to an unenthusiastic audience in a dark auditorium let us know that this colorful, triumphant performance is mostly taking place in Tammy Faye’s imagination. For all of Chastian’s claims to love her subject, the film leaves Tammy Faye pathetic and defeated.

Even more inexplicably, Chastain in this scene is styled less like Tammy Faye and more like Anita Bryant, a pop singer and evangelical celebrity who became one of the most prominent opponents of gay rights in the late 1970s. Bryant’s signature number was the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an indication of her stridently patriotic public persona. In the final scene of the film, Chastain is singing this song, wearing a wig that might have been taken from Anita Bryant’s closet, and preaching a sermon that Bryant could tap her toes to. Even Chastain’s costume looks remarkably like the outfit Bryant wore for the cover of her 1992 memoir.

The idea that Tammy Faye’s life and personality would need some extra color, imported from her ideological opposite, is baffling, a seeming cheap shot from a movie that claims to love her. If these choices were not deliberate, then they are representative of the film, which manages to be both meticulous and sloppy.

In another striking example of this problem, Chastain has talked about how hard she worked to master a Minnesota accent for this film. But Tammy Faye did not have a Minnesota accent. She was born and raised in the land of 10,000 lakes, but by the time she rose to fame, she had developed a unique way of speaking; hints of her birthplace mingled with her Southern adulthood and careful elocution. Like so much of the film, Chastain’s accent is specific and carefully researched but also, somehow, deeply wrong.

Loose ends abound. A framing device lifted from the documentary and a cameo of Tammy Faye’s second husband are scattered like Easter eggs throughout the film, but who are they for? Tammy Faye scholars and super-fans will chafe against the film’s numerous errors and nonsensical ending, while Tammy Faye newbies will be lost.

This is the film’s central failing: it doesn’t seem to know what it is or who it is for. Is it about Tammy Faye’s childhood faith and her struggles to put that faith into practice in the messy world of adulthood? Is it about a woman’s difficult relationships with her mother, her husband, and, ultimately, herself? Is it the story of a uniquely compassionate woman in a world dominated by greed, politics, and ambition? Is it a revival of the 1987 media circus, with its hunger for details about the Bakkers’ luxurious and miserable lives? Is it fan fiction based on the documentary that solidified Tammy Faye’s status in the gay community?

Each possibility is introduced, and none are fulfilled.

Before the 2000 documentary, the 1990 made-for-TV movie starring Bernadette Peters was its near-opposite. While the documentary is campy, queer, and worships Tammy Faye, the earlier movie is self-serious, sanctimonious, full of contempt. But despite these stark differences, both knew what they were and what they wanted to say.

Like the 1990 movie that despised the Bakkers, Chastain’s biopic is structured around the scandals of the late ’80s. If Chastain and her team wanted to present a more nuanced and compassionate portrait, the documentary offers a better example — centering instead on a 1985 interview that Tammy Faye conducted with Steve Pieters, a gay Christian minister living with AIDS.

At this time, the AIDS epidemic was tearing through the gay community while most Americans ignored or reviled the sick and dying. Mainstream media coverage was openly homophobic. In 1983, The New York Times famously reported that many “victims of AIDS” frequented gay bathhouses “where a typical visit may include sex with 15 to 20 deliberately anonymous men.” (Beyond being untrue, this seems logistically challenging.) While other televangelists preached that AIDS was God’s righteous judgment against gay men, Tammy Faye chose to admonish her religious audience: “How sad that we as Christians […] are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arms around them and tell them that we care.”

This interview appears in the biopic, and several people associated with the movie have called it “the heart of the film.” Would that it was. In the documentary, this scene unlocks Tammy Faye’s later emergence as a queer icon. In the biopic, it is emblematic of the film’s fallibility; beautifully designed and compellingly staged, it ultimately comes to nothing.

Instead, the biopic spends more time on the rumors that Jim Bakker was bisexual, that he routinely harassed male and female employees, and that he carried on a longtime affair with his personal assistant, John Fletcher. This arc coincides with Jim’s increasingly wretched behavior in the film, leaving a homophobic impression that is more in line with the 1980s media coverage than a lovingly crafted portrait. The fact that the film has invested so much into marketing to queer and drag communities is yet another example of its mixed messaging and confused sense of identity.

Tammy Faye Bakker lived a dramatic life, full of cinematic potential, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye attempts to capture that life in all of its complexities. The result is a film that is visually rich, driven by strong performances, yet also incoherent and marred by odd choices. The people who made this film seem to care about its subject, but the film does not know itself well enough to be itself and love itself. Tammy Faye’s heart and soul just aren’t in it.

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Emily Suzanne Johnson is a historian and professor based in Indiana. Her book This Is Our Message explores the lives and work of prominent evangelical women, including Tammy Faye Bakker. She is now working on two separate books, on Dolly Parton and Satanism.