The world of evangelical Christian personalities Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is one I had never really been exposed to, having grown up in the 1990s and never really seeing these types of characters on the television (except unless I got up too early for Cheez TV and decided to do a little channel surfing). My first reaction was how bizarre the Praise the Lord network was, but also that, watching Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy Faye, I could see why people liked her and was able to see why the Bakkers were successful in their swindling of thousands of their followers. Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” reflects the contradictions of their world; where people preached kindness and selflessness but then embezzled millions and engaged in exactly the kind of behaviour they had made a business out of condemning. At the centre of this is Tammy Faye, a walking contradiction in herself; Chastain has captured, with an admirable likeness, a woman who seems earnest in her faith, her vulnerability and and her love for her fellow man. However, she also, if not actively participated, at least turns a determinedly blind eye to her husband’s appalling criminal behaviour while surrounding herself with the luxury that his exploitation generated.
The storyline of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” follows the standard plot points of the Hollywood biopic fairly religiously (you get that one for free). Tamara Faye LaValley grows up in a small religious community in International Falls, Minnesota, with a typically hard lined and strict mother (Cherry Jones) who constantly reminds her of how she was conceived in her prior marriage which had ended in divorce and that if her brothers and sisters were going to hell, it was because of her. She develops a love for Christianity, and grows up wanting to spread the word of the Lord. While at Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets another passionate young student, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and the two soon marry. The film follows the journey of the two evangelicals as they develop their own Christian television program where Jim preached and Tammy sang gospel music and telling the stories of the Bible and tales of morality with puppets, eventually creating the PLT (Praise the Lord) network and reaching dizzying heights of fame and wealth, despite some controversy with her willingness to support the gay community and AIDS patients. Eventually, suspicions arise over the financial dealings of he PLT network (particularly through the obtaining of millions of dollars worth pledges from their followers), and also allegations over Jim engaging in homosexual activities over the course of the prior 20 years and engaging in an affair where the woman involved was paid $200k for her silence. Jim is eventually arrested, and Tammy Faye is stripped of all her luxuries and is reduced to living in comparatively meagre means and total rejection from the Christian world. The film concludes with Tammy Faye performing for the first time in ten years as a guest star at Oral Roberts University.
Was she an unwitting victim in all of this? Or as culpable as Jim was in defrauding all those poor people who contributed their money in hopes of spreading the good word of Jesus Christ? I think its probably a little of both; Tammy Faye Bakker was my no means a fool, nor was she a monster. As far as this film is concerned, she wanted so badly to believe in the good in the world, in the Lord, and in her husband that she blocked out the wickedness she knew was there. Whether that manifested itself in her addictions, her excessive spending, her increasingly garish make up and surgeries, Tammy Faye certainly didn’t come out of everything that happened unscathed. The film is undoubtedly kind to Tammy Faye, significantly minimising her involvement in the embezzlement and providing an admittedly superficial examination of what actually happened at the PTL Network. I was thinking though, that’s not what the film seeks to be; Jim Bakker and PTL are very much secondary characters in this story, this film is telling the story of Tammy Faye and how she viewed the world. We may not see much of the darker and more sinister dealings that went on because (according to the film anyway), she either genuinely didn’t know what was going on or chose to delude herself and continue on believing that she and Jim were doing the work of the Lord and their critics were simply their enemies out to get them.
Chastain is a wonderful actress, and though I don’t necessarily think this is the best performance of her career I do think she deserves the Best Actress Oscar this year. Her portrayal has obviously been meticulously prepared, down to the mannerisms and that very specific voice, not to mention doing all her own singing. Some have said that her performance and in particular the make up and prosthetics used are distracting and over enthusiastic. While this may be true to a degree, (I had a quick look at some old footage of the real Tammy Faye Bakker and its undeniable that Chastain has definitely turned up the dial just a bit), I don’t think this necessarily detracts from the film. The laugh is a little louder, the accent is a little more Minnesotan and the very characteristic tilt of the head is just so slightly moving more towards 45 degrees. I do think though, that this was a very deliberate choice and it’s obvious that Chastain isn’t going for that dead on, uncanny evocation. Tammy Faye Bakker was an outrageous character in real life, but watching a film as an audience, we always tend to need a little more in order to elicit that same reaction. Chastain has made the right creative choices in slightly exaggerating everything she did, because this also represented how Tammy Faye was larger than life and that she was such a shocking contrast to the overweight, balding and monochromic men who had lead the evangelical movement up to that point. As likeable as Chastain’s Tammy Faye is, that is how unlikeable and slimy Garfield’s Jim Bakker is. Garfield has captured every sycophantic, weak, bullying, self-righteous and egotistical trait that personified this dreadful man, and manages to create someone where the audience can imagine themselves punching him in his big, stupid bloated face.
I enjoyed “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” very much. I know its shamelessly Oscar bait-y and without Jessica Chastain’s central performance probably wouldn’t be anything too memorable, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. There’s an entirely different film to be made about the corruption that went on at PTL and the Bakker’s role in it, but that’s not what this film is. It’s about a unique woman who had her flaws and was almost certainly more culpable than the film lets on, but was undeniably talented and passionate in her faith and work, and really did have a way of connecting with people. In the final scene as Tammy Faye sings “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to her audience for the first time in a decade, initially timid but growing in confidence as the song escalates, I could genuinely see why she touched people the way she did. This was her story told through her eyes, however clouded they may have been.
By Jock Lehman