I was too young to know Jim and Tammy Bakker in their heyday. They were a perky husband and wife youth pastor team who used songs and puppets to reach out to Christian children in the hopes that their parents would soon follow. They espoused some new Christian values, mainly that you need not be poor to be pious. And the best and fastest way to get Christians to part with their cash was to beam into millions of homes at once: television!
At one point, they were popular, beloved, and rich, rich, rich, using “church” donations to fund a family compound, a Jesus in Jerusalem water and theme park, and furs for everyone. Everyone! And then the scandal hit: Jim Bakker wasn’t just skimming profits, he was shoveling them right into his own pockets. Plus, he’d been having a string of homosexual affairs – and one woman with whom things did not go well, and he paid off to keep it to herself that he couldn’t get off. Or up. By the time I knew about the Bakkers, the pastoring was behind them. Jim was in jail. Tammy Faye was a punchline. You may remember her as the woman who wore an entire tube of mascara every single day.
This movie is Tammy Faye’s biopic, the chance to finally get to know the woman behind the man, trying very hard to get in front of him.
I’ve enjoyed director Michael Showalter’s work (The Lovebirds, The Big Sick, Hello My Name Is Doris) in the past so I was excited to check this one out at TIFF.
Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye and let me assure you: enough said. She is phenomenal. She sings, she sobs, she stands up to the sexist pigs running the ministry. She’s a total firecracker, and incredibly infectious. Jim Bakker is played by Andrew Garfield, who isn’t bad, but inevitably pales in comparison. The film is a straight biopic, starting with Tammy’s childhood obsession with religion and hitting all the major hallmarks of her life. The film paints Tammy as a pure and nearly innocent soul, just a nice girl who loves God, and all His people, and Diet Coke, in that order.
I was completely entertained by this movie, but I did find Tammy’s depiction to be suspiciously and relentlessly positive. Even more of a problem was the film’s refusal to really dig into the story – into Tammy’s true role and culpability in defrauding her ‘people’ and into what this whole fiasco means to the church generally and televangelism especially. It feels like Showalter is so dedicated to reshaping her legacy that he isn’t willing to be critical of the actual facts. Still, Showalter’s brilliant casting saves him. Chastain is so charming and charismatic that it’s easy to overlook any superficiality. I’d watching this again, 10/10.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an official TIFF selection.