Tammy Faye Messner and her first husband, Jim, were a total freak show—a fraudster clown act that’s one of the most prominent examples of ugly 1980s greed and out-of-control televangelist shysters.
However, making a movie about their crazy exploits is not easy. Fall From Grace (1990) featured douchebag Kevin Spacey as douchebag Jim, and the angelic Bernadette Peters as Tammy Faye. Despite the star power, the film was mediocre—and the story has always been ripe for a cinematic retelling, despite the challenges the saga presents. Thankfully, director Michael Showalter proves he is up to the challenge with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, featuring a marvelous Jessica Chastain in the title role.
The one big problem with the film is that this really needed to be a miniseries. There are many years, layers and chapters to the Bakker tragicomedy, and a single 126-minute movie can’t possibly cover it all. This is an abridged telling of the train wreck that was their multiple scandals.
The film starts in the 1950s, with a young Tammy Faye eager to attend church with her mother, Rachel (an outstanding Cherry Jones), and father, Fred (Frederic Lehne). In these short opening scenes, Jones establishes her character as a hard-ass who is just looking for an excuse to be nice and happy. Many actresses could’ve turned this part into something bitter and stoic, but Jones gives Rachel serious depth; her performance is a master class in reserved line delivery and effective facial expressions.
Chastain steps in as an older Tammy Faye going to Bible college, where she meets Jim (Andrew Garfield). Chastain instantly brings multiple dimensions to a person who got reduced to a clown-makeup joke by the media up until her death in 2007. After watching what Chastain does with Tammy Faye in this movie, it feels different to watch the real Tammy Faye in old news clips and interviews (like her live interview with Jim on Nightline, re-created in the film). There was a real, sometimes-sweet person under all of that makeup.
Yes, she was partially responsible for a despicable swindle involving the Bakker ministry, which included the Heritage USA Bible-themed theme park and a massive TV network. But she was also a gay advocate/icon, and a passionate singer. She did attempt to make up for some of her misdeeds, and this movie does a solid job of showing some of her redemptive qualities.
Chastain captures all of the Tammy Faye mannerisms (yes, often with the caked-on makeup) in a way that feels less like caricature or impersonation, and more like she’s channeling the flawed, blindingly optimistic individual. Her Tammy Faye gives the real-life counterpart a bit of dignity to go with the comical flamboyance. She also nails Tammy Faye’s singing voice in the film’s musical moments.
Garfield conveys the bland, unimpressive, fake personality of Jim Bakker quite well. He does an excellent job of capturing a very boring loser. His performance is less showy, but I’ve seen a lot of Jim Bakker over the years, and Garfield nails his total lack of charisma. It still boggles the mind how this troll siphoned millions of dollars out of all those bank accounts. There are a lot of idiots in the world.
The movie glosses over the Jessica Hahn scandal and doesn’t cover much after the Bakkers’ eventual divorce. While the focus is on Tammy here, it would’ve been interesting to see a little bit of Jim’s post-jail life. This bastard is still getting people to donate millions to his fake causes. Again … there are a lot of idiots in this world, and Jim Bakker is one of their kings.
The film’s supporting cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell, the Darth Vader of the scumbag-televangelist world. D’Onofrio disappears into the guise of the ultimate TV religion villain, to the point where the actor is no longer recognizable. Let’s hope the time he spent playing this awful human being didn’t have an adverse effect on his pancreas.
Credit Showalter for making this a sometimes-awkward and unpleasant experience—because that’s what this film should be. You’ll cringe more than you will laugh—but Chastain’s performance makes the ugly parts go down a little easier.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now playing at theaters across the valley.