Film & Television

Oscar-Nominee Jessica Chastain in
‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

I started my career in cable television. I was the copywriter and then the associate creative director for one of the country’s largest cable operators. For someone who loved to write and loved entertainment, it was a dream job. Cable was on an upswing in the early days of MTV and Cinemax. And we reaped the benefits: preview tapes of new releases, tickets to live events, junkets to New York and L.A. Oh, and the swag! Mugs, T-shirts, beach towels, tote bags, director’s chairs. For a while my entire apartment looked as if it had been furnished by HBO.

One day, reps visited our office from PTL, the evangelical satellite network whose call letters were an acronym for Praise the Lord. As usual, they were meeting with the senior sales and marketing team. And, as usual, they brought promotional items for the rest of us. We each got a 45 of “The Ballad of Jim and Tammy” (yes, most of us still had turntables at the time), and a “Susie Moppet” doll, red dress, yellow pigtails, big eyes, and round, pink cheeks. The doll talked when you squeezed it. “Turn a frown upside down,” she solemnly advised in a Betty Boop voice, “Whoops! You’ve got a smile!”

The creative department I worked in was filled with smug 20-somethings, and I shudder to remember what we did to those poor dolls. Little did I know that a mere three and a half decades later, I could have sold mine on eBay for a tidy sum. 

Or, that I would be reviewing an Oscar-nominated movie based on the doll’s human “mother”: Tammy Faye Bakker.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a dramatization, based on the 2000 documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Both are best known as the producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race (and its numerous spinoffs). And, the film is narrated by RuPaul.

The association with drag queens is apropos. The real Tammy Faye wore makeup that would rival any of Drag Race contestants’. And, in a time when AIDS was being called the “gay plague” by the media, conservative politicians, and evangelical Christians, Tammy Faye was willing to interview a gay man on television and openly extend her love and the love of God.

Jessica Chastain, who has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her current portrayal of Tammy Faye, explained to The Advocate just how significant that was. “The Steve Pieters interview is a shocking moment. I call her punk rock. That’s how I see Tammy. Televangelism is run by white men, and here comes this woman in a time when the U.S. government won’t even say AIDS. They won’t talk about it. Communities are dying. And she brings Steve Pieters on to the show. Not only does she [ask] ‘When did you realize that you were different? And what did that feel like and what happened when you came out to your family?’ For the Christian parents to hear this, the parents whose children might be struggling with the idea of coming out to them. That was groundbreaking.”

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), showcases moments like the one Chastain described. The film goes out of its way to make an over-the-top Christian celebrity more than a punchline, foil for SNL’s Church Lady, or gay icon. 

Beginning with a sympathetic origin story, screenwriter Abe Sylvia offers us a glimpse into Tammy Faye’s childhood. Growing up in near poverty with multiple half-siblings, Tammy is kept away from the local church because she’s the daughter of her mother’s first marriage and therefore a reminder to all of the sin of divorce. As a young adult, she attends North Central Bible College in Minnesota, where she’s (prophetically?) scolded for wearing too much makeup. But, she meets an earnest young student named Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, sincere, but a bit too young for the role) who believes that God wants us to be prosperous and happy. They marry and briefly return to Tammy’s family before establishing their traveling, and singing, and puppet-ing ministry.

On their way up the evangelical ladder, events both deliberate and coincidental cause them to cross paths with the other religious celebrities of the day: Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), and megachurch builder Roe Messner (Sam Jaeger). While Jim is eager to get ahead within the established hierarchy, it’s Tammy who sees the men clearly and finds ways to make an end run around the existing boys’ club. Soon, she and Jim have their own show, then their own channel, then their own satellite network. They live in a lakefront mansion; Tammy buys countless furs for herself and her mother (Cherry Jones, wonderful as always). Their phone banks ring with a continual stream of donations, and they spend hundreds of millions to build Heritage USA, a Christian theme park to rival Disneyland.

Meanwhile, Tammy Faye is addicted to Diet Coke and Ativan, and Jim is closer than he should be to his male assistant (Louis Cancelmi) and to a certain young woman who would prove his undoing, church secretary Jessica Hahn.

The film could be called The Rise and Fall of the House of Bakker, but it’s not — and for good reason. Tammy Faye, who, let’s face it, was always more colorful than her husband, is very much the center and the heart of the movie. And, despite the liberal use of pancake and prosthetics, Chastain makes you care for her. Her ability to create a whole and sympathetic person under a virtual, and sometimes seemingly immobile, mask is surely what her Oscar nomination is honoring (and for which she just won the SAG Award). I, for one, would have preferred a bit less hair and makeup magic. But the actress somehow transcends it.

Against many odds, you will find yourself rooting for her. Whether or not it tracks to absolute truth, Chastain’s Tammy truly loves God and truly believes she is doing his work on Earth. Although she doesn’t exactly turn down any of the material trappings of their sumptuous and illegally financed lifestyle, she is oblivious — all right, perhaps conveniently so — to the crimes her husband commits. She feels neglected and rejected by him and succumbs to a flirtation with her music producer; it’s brief because, pregnant with her second child, her water breaks as she straddles him fully clothed. An awkward and unconsummated encounter, yet Tammy is forced to confess her infidelity tearfully on-air, which just makes the phones ring more.

Their world eventually comes crashing down, a combination of Jim’s shall-we-say “bookkeeping indiscretions” and alleged rape of Hahn, and Falwell’s vendetta against them. But Tammy Faye, whose appearance becomes more exaggerated and ghastly as she ages, still drinks her Diet Coke, pitches TV shows to sneering young producers, prays for guidance, and the film ends with Tammy’s onstage comeback, glorifying God and the U.S.A.

And, even as I repent my treatment of the Susie Moppet doll, I say, “Glory, Hallelujah!”

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is available in movie theaters or to stream on HBO Max.


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