Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) meet as chipmunk-cheeked cheery Bible students who want to emphasize Jesus’ love versus the typical sin-and-hellfire style of preaching. They are mutually enraptured, marry almost immediately (getting them booted from their Bible college) and start a Christian children’s TV show involving Tammy’s homemade puppets made out of bathroom items (gotta give her credit for that!). The show is a huge success.
From there, they have a meteoritic rise. Televangelist Pat Robertson discovers and hires the perky couple as the first hosts of the (still in production) 700 Club, and from there make literal bank with their hugely successfully PTL (Praise the Lord) show in the 70s and 80s. But their positive messaging and flair for entertainment doesn’t make them particularly popular with other TV preachers, like Jerry Falwell, Sr. (calmly sinister Vincent D’Onofrio). Combine the cattiness and competitiveness of the Christian televangelists with the full-on corruption that was clearly happening behind the scenes, and Jim and Tammy are destined for a spectacular downfall.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, based on the same-named (and similarly-themed) documentary from 2000 by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, clearly takes the side of Tammy Faye. Jessica Chastain’s spot-on portrayal would seem over-the-top if you were unfamiliar with the real woman, who will forever live in pop culture memory for her astonishing eye makeup (which has been toned down for the movie). She is also well-known to have been truly kind, even if she did like to spend that money lavishly without asking questions.
Tammy’s constant giggle makes her sound over-the-top cheery… or on the verge of hysteria. But when she and Jim go to an early lavish luncheon at Pat Robertson’s mansion, she doesn’t hesitate for a second to pull up a chair at the men’s table (toddler on lap) to take part in the discussion (much to the discomfort of the good ol’ boys). And try not to get choked with emotion when she does an early interview (I’m talking mid-80s) with an AIDS patient named Steve. Talking to him remotely, her compassion reaches through the screen, through smiles and tears, as she tells him, “I wanna put my arm around you!” and Steve, replies, “I want to put my arms around you, Tammy!” (Sob!) I can only imagine how many isolated and suffering people this interview touched, and she gets a HUGE hug of credit for that.
Just because of the subject matter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye borders on camp comedy (Tammy careening around on live TV hopped up on tranquilizers is both classic and cringe-inducing), but it is Tammy’s earnestness that keeps you from dismissing her. I have no fondness for folks who fleece the public in the name of Jesus for their own personal gain (which is obviously still going on). But I have to have respect for a woman who, after her downfall, kept the best of her character intact. “I just wanna love people!” By all accounts, she truly did.