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The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Released 2021. Director: Michael Showalter

TO DESCRIBE THE ROLE OF TAMMY FAYE AS COLOURFUL IS MERELY REFERRING to her make-up as a start. Her eye shadows alone have as many shades as a peacock’s feather. Her personality and lifestyle is equally vivacious and full of life. Nobody could miss someone like Tammy Faye if she walked into a crowded room, the same way Jessica Chastain grabs you by the eyeballs as she disappears behind heavy cosmetics vividly illustrating the rise and fall of a preacher’s wife.

If you’re old enough to remember the scandals that befell celebrity televangelists in the 1980s and 1990s you’d have come across the name Tammy Faye. TV evangelism was huge in those days. So much money poured into the business of saving souls the preachers had more money than God ever did. Whilst they sang and prayed and laid hands and shouted hallelujah in a show of righteous living, behind the scene it was anything but. One after another they fell, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart are two of the most prominent names out of many, convicted variously of sexual misconduct, fraud, tax evasion and miracle healing scams.

Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker met at bible college and the two married soon after. The couple went on the road as travelling evangelists until they were roped in as part of preacher Pat Robertson’s TV show in 1965. From there, Jim and Tammy became so popular they started the Praise the Lord Club, launched their own show, built a TV network and it grew to become a media behemoth of its day, beaming into millions of homes via satellite. An empire was born.

Jim and Tammy, like their fellow wealthy preacher friends, subscribed to the prosperity gospel. The verse “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth” was highly debatable. It’s no secret they lived a luxurious life in a palatial home by the lake, drive expensive cars and flew first-class.

Whilst the movie doesn’t skimp on showing us how the Bakkers lived the high life supported by an unending stream of donations from ordinary believers, it also shows us the Bakkers genuinely believed they are doing God’s work. Jim and Tammy are portrayed as hardworking entrepreneurs, labouring over every aspect of their expanding enterprise. Then again, I suppose crooks also work hard to keep their operations profitable.

Jim was keenly aware of how the power of his on-air ministry fed a need which in turn presented enormous fund-raising opportunities. Andrew Garfield brings a certain amount of charm and conviction enough to make a believer out of the audience, but his true function is to create the context for the title character to shine.

The movie’s spotlight is on Tammy Faye and the efforts to humanise and present her as a sympathetic character rests almost entirely on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which is full of warmth and tireless drive. Tammy was genuinely happy in what she did and did not abandon those she loved in times of strife. She stood by her husband when they were accused of immorality and crime. She looked after her mother though they never had the dearest of relationships. Just as crucial, the movie re-enacted Tammy’s interview with Steve Pieters, showing that Christians could be non-judgmental towards a man with HIV, groundbreaking for any church in 1985.

Tammy Faye was a woman full of love for everyone and she brought empathy and compassion to where churches normally wouldn’t go. At the other end, she’s also completely ignorant of how her husband was handling the massive fortune pouring in. Tammy was active in the PTL Club, a partner in the business who had her fingers in every pie, half of a celebrity power couple. Did she really not know, or did her eyes choose not to see?

Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and thrown in prison; the PTL empire was taken over by Falwell and Tammy lost all her earthly riches though she was spared jail term. The movie’s insistence on fitting a redemptive halo on Tammy feels strained to fulfil a rise-fall-redemption narrative. Any insight into the real Tammy Faye is only skin-deep like her makeup. Beneath that pitchy voice and nervous laugh, who was the real Tammy Faye? Director Michael Showalter and writer Abe Sylvia never take the movie beyond the showiness and attention to an actress’ transformation. The movie is not so much an insightful character study on a woman fallen from grace or a critique of charlatan faith leaders than an acting showcase for Jessica Chastain.


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