Jessica Chastain performs the famously made-up televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a film that reconsiders what lay beneath all of the sin and paint.
Picture: Lou Krasky/AP/Shutterstock

Tammy Faye Messner by no means escaped her first husband. By the point of her demise, in 2007, she was nonetheless greatest identified for her marriage to disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker and for her personal function within the South Carolina–based mostly ministry they constructed up — actually within the type of a Christian theme park spanning 2,900 acres — after which destroyed with the drive of their very own greed. She grew to become a nationwide punch line for her elaborate make-up and gaudy garments and high-pitched voice. Was there anything to Tammy Faye beneath the sin and paint?

A brand new movie argues the affirmative. Based on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain, the previous tv star simply wished to like individuals the way in which she believed God beloved her. And maybe the way in which she beloved different issues — stunning issues and the tv cameras and, for many years, one weak-willed man who went to jail for defrauding his disciples of hundreds of thousands of {dollars}. To make use of spiritual parlance, these different loves proved to be obstacles — obstacles on the trail to a godly life, if to not salvation itself. They make Tammy Faye a tough topic for a redemption narrative, which is basically what The Eyes of Tammy Faye units out to be.

Maybe my very own spiritual background cramps my view right here. I used to be raised a Christian fundamentalist with a love of straight strains and black-or-white solutions. Tammy Faye’s God was not my God. Whereas I worshipped the Lord of scrubbed floorboards and modest attire, Tammy most popular plush carpets and mink furs. I didn’t develop up watching the Bakkers’ The PTL Membership, partly as a result of it was earlier than my time and as a result of Tammy Faye was, for Christians like my mother and father, each an object of derision and an object lesson: The love of cash corrupts completely and signifies deeper heresies. The Satan can recite Scripture in addition to anyone, however he’s nonetheless the Satan. However I’ve come a great distance from my time on the church puppet group, and as I as soon as reevaluated my fundamentalism, possibly I might reevaluate Tammy.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye begins with a narrative I can’t with absolute certainty say relies on truth however is unquestionably a model of occasions that real-life Tammy, born in 1942, endorsed: She is a lady, falling to the bottom and talking in tongues after defying her mom’s prohibition on attending church. Although Tammy grew up in a non secular family, she’s a baby of divorce, an incredible disgrace to her mom and to her mom’s congregation. However by way of sheer perception — in God’s love and her personal salvation — she’s in a position to persuade the hostile group that she has in truth been blessed. Parishioners collect round the place she lies on the ground, praising the Lord for her presence.

It’s an expertise Chastain’s Tammy tries to re-create again and again as an grownup. She matures right into a well-meaning naïf, a bubbly, burgeoning superstar whose pure charisma attracts individuals in and lifts up her husband’s preaching profession. Starting within the Sixties with puppets — and sure, I did shiver a bit right here with recognition — Tammy’s artistic concepts present a spark that her husband and co-minister, Jim Bakker, performed by Andrew Garfield, desperately wants. Earlier than lengthy, they graduate from the traveling-church circuit to a bona fide tv present on Pat Robertson’s community, the cinematic chronology hewing carefully to actual life. With a brand new platform, she is audacious and piteous at equal turns. She desires up new ministries whereas she fears the lack of her husband’s affections. She seeks the approval of her forbidding mom, performed within the movie by Cherry Jones, and finds its substitute in her tv audiences.

Onscreen, the Bakkers’ newfound fame is threatened by Tammy’s naïveté. Throughout a celebration at Robertson’s mansion, she drags a chair over to the boys’s desk and challenges Jerry Falwell — a brimstone Baptist, in distinction to the Pentecostalism of Robertson and the Bakkers — on his homophobia. When Falwell tells Jim that his spouse is a firecracker, it’s not a praise. It’s designed to sting two methods; Tammy ought to really feel dangerous for talking up, and Jim ought to really feel dangerous for permitting her to stray. Encounters like these are flippantly fictionalized, however the sentiment is true to life: Tammy was typically within the nook of outcasts, as she made clear in her books and public appearances. For instance, the true Tammy did broadcast an interview with Steve Pieters, a person dwelling with HIV/AIDS within the mid-’80s, a second the movie reenacts at size.

The sexism Tammy Faye confronted was actual too — and endemic to the trendy Christian-right milieu wherein she moved. A latest Christianity Immediately podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, drives house the extent to which in style ministers constructed, and nonetheless construct, empires on the backs of ladies. It takes the instance of one other superstar pastor, Mark Driscoll, who’s liable to anonymous message-board rants about our “pussified nation” and about how “men are supposed to rule on Christ’s behalf.” There are main variations, lots of them theological, between Driscoll and the Bakkers, however the atmosphere wherein the Bakkers moved prefigures newer debates over the right function of ladies within the Christian church. Regardless of her devotion, Tammy and her famously made-up face most popular no such correct function. Within the movie, and in life, Tammy is the drive propelling Jim to better and better heights. Once they begin The PTL Membership in 1974, she works alongside her husband as an equal associate of their wildly profitable tv ministry. After she cheats on him with a hunky born-again music producer, and is pressured to apologize on TV to their membership’s hundreds of thousands of “partners,” the telephones nearly instantly start to blare. Even in her abasement, Tammy Faye might encourage donations. It’s her, not Jim, the followers actually beloved.

Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker, and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye.
Picture: Courtesy of Searchlight Photos

To this point, so sympathetic. However we’re right here as a result of Tammy, and her first husband, fell dramatically from grace. Whereas Tammy purchased furs, her husband Jim acquired as much as some monetary excessive jinks — and worse. The Federal Communications Fee discovered within the early Nineteen Eighties that cash Jim had raised to fund abroad missions had as a substitute gone to fund development tasks at Heritage USA, the couple’s residential compound and theme park. Heritage USA was inseparable from the Bakker ministry, the location each of their claimed good works and their hubris. The development of an on-site house for kids with disabilities proved a fundraising windfall for the Bakkers; however the Los Angeles Occasions reported in 1987 that after its completion, the house solely housed 5 individuals — and two have been Bakker cousins. The Justice Division declined to prosecute, however the hammer would finally fall. In 1989, Jim was convicted of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. Because the New York Occasions reported on the time, he “bilked followers of his PTL Ministry out of $158 million by offering promises of lifetime vacations he could not provide” and “diverted about $3.7 million to support an opulent lifestyle that ranged from oddities like an air-conditioned dog house to luxuries like a fleet of Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces.”

His imprisonment meant the top — of The PTL Membership, of the large homes, and, finally, of their marriage. The 2 parted firm: Tammy remarried to Roe Messner, a property developer depicted within the movie; wrote books; and refashioned herself earlier than her demise in 2007. Jim, in the meantime, is again on TV, the identical previous snake-oil salesman. He hawks dietary supplements and buckets of “survival food” for preppers, and in June, he and his new church needed to pay $165,000 to settle a lawsuit over his claims {that a} product known as “Silver Solution” might remedy COVID.

The Bakker story was headline information within the ’80s and early ’90s. Lately, audiences is likely to be much less aware of Tammy or, in the event that they know her in any respect, know solely her face. To them, Tammy is a guide with clean pages to be crammed, worthy of consideration as a result of she is now the topic of a serious movie. Those that keep in mind Tammy’s public story, nonetheless, will spend a lot of the movie ready to seek out out precisely the way it plans to complicate its heroine. At greatest, Tammy relished her wealth with out questioning its origins. At worst, Tammy was Jim’s equal associate in all issues and actively helped him rob the very viewers she craved. The movie wavers between the 2 prospects. Jim hid the worst of his misdeeds from her, it suggests, and Tammy didn’t ask many questions. She believed in his imaginative and prescient and helped him promote it to the top. Primarily based on a 2000 documentary narrated by RuPaul, the movie at instances picks up on an earlier try to retrofit her with at present’s baggage — to make her right into a televangelist girlboss, possibly even a gay-friendly icon. Tammy was one thing of each, in her approach. However within the means of humanizing Tammy, the movie sanctifies her. What’s good for the girlboss is never good for anybody else. Tammy was greater than a caricature, however that doesn’t imply she was a heroine.

Fundamentalists love to seek out fault, not less than in different individuals. That tendency could make an individual a poor critic. So I’ll step outdoors my childhood lengthy sufficient to watch that the movie units out to perform a collection of inauspicious issues by dramatizing a piece of nonfiction and telling a narrative narrowly by way of the attitude of 1 character. As a result of it’s based mostly on true occasions, there may be an expectation that it will likely be an correct story. However as a result of it’s advised actually by way of Tammy, an unreliable narrator, it’s not fairly the reality both. A movie doesn’t must be one factor or the opposite, reality or fiction. The seek for purity is one other fundamentalist impulse.

Even so, the movie may need concocted a extra fascinating and vexing Tammy had it included sure details it omitted from the narrative. Greed may not be Jim Bakker’s best sin. Proof suggests he’s responsible of a lot worse, an offense the movie downplays. In a single scene, Tammy occurs upon John Wesley Fletcher, a Bakker aide, addressing an older lady who solutions telephones for The PTL Membership. A lady stored calling, she mentioned. The PTL Membership’s on-air receptionists name her “the shrieker.” In actual life, the girl had a reputation, which the movie restores to her proper earlier than the credit roll. She was Jessica Hahn, and based on her, Fletcher and Bakker sexually assaulted her, then paid her with The PTL Membership’s cash to maintain quiet. “I knew something was taking place, but I didn’t feel in control of the situation,” she said of the encounter in 1987. Bakker says the intercourse was consensual, the identical story that Bakker the character tells Tammy within the movie. Tammy, for her half, appeared to simply accept Bakker’s phrase on the alleged assault and on different issues. In her 2003 guide, I Will Survive … And You Will, Too, she refers to her ex-husband’s “one-night stand,” although Hahn’s story was by then well-known. “The lies had somehow become truth in people’s minds,” she complained.

God can love Tammy, however can we? The movie needs us to attempt. There was an actual lady beneath the make-up, it reminds us, and he or she acquired just a few issues proper. Tammy’s actual willingness to buck the fanatics in her orbit makes her a well timed determine. The general public’s response to her — the jokes about her on late-night TV, the T-shirts bearing her made-up face — really feel of the second too. To be a lady in public is to ask commentary, a lot of it harsh. But Tammy’s infallibility is what feels most related of all. The girlboss finally misplaced her shine, if certainly she ever possessed it. Immediately, we’re used to icons who fail us. To borrow from Scripture, none is righteous; no, not one.

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