The Story of the “First Lady of Religious Broadcasting”

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The Story of the “First Lady of Religious Broadcasting”

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a cuddly biopic about televangelist duo Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain), who achieved national fame in the 1960s, then in the ’80s fell from grace after he was sentenced to 45 years in prison for fraud. Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the comedic drama depicts Tammy Faye, “The First Lady of Religious Broadcasting,” as a strong-willed, earnest believer who honestly comes by a fondness for the audacious. Her dramatic, charismatic public performance as a singer and preacher’s wife with sparkly flair is paired with a genuine love of her fellow human beings, even when they don’t fit the acceptable boxes of Evangelical Christianity. (Such as queer people, including those with HIV and AIDS during the height of the pandemic.)

From The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Aided by no-holds-barred prosthetics, hair, and costuming, Chastain disappears into Tammy Faye. The pacing hits its stride early on and rarely disturbs the trance she casts upon the audience. The story follows Tammy Faye’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story, as her fame gives way to scandal and prescription drug misuse before she dedicates herself to her redemption. Chastain’s command of the character steadies a script that is sometimes devoid of the layers the real woman displays in the documentary. This new film flattens its heroine more than it fleshes her out. Despite its odd reliance on puppets to frame the story, the 2000 Eyes of Tammy Faye depicts a woman in control of her own narrative. She’s worked through what’s happened to her and moved on, finding her way back to the church and public life on her own terms. But with this adaptation, director Michael Showalter and writer Abe Sylvia cut out significant parts of the story, like Tammy Faye’s second marriage, or how she spoke out against former colleague Jerry Falwell (played here by Vincent D’Onofrio). 

This film seems invested in conjuring Tammy Faye as a wounded puppy of an underdog. Showalter and Sylvia decide that to foment her rise, she must be stripped of much of what made her so interesting, leaving only the most infamous and superficial details. For example, after Tammy Faye has an affair and reconciles with Jim in private, he makes her apologize again, this time on their television show as a fundraising stunt. The doc neither confirms nor denies the affair, but it shows that her real-life speech was actually about her addiction and recovery. Jim’s own affair — and his botched coverup of it — is downplayed, whereas Fenton and Barbato frame this incident as the catalyst for the Bakkers’ unraveling. 

This mixing and matching of Tammy Faye’s words and deeds comes to a head in the ending, when she is invited to be the opening act for a concert at the infamously conservative Oral Roberts University. In the documentary, we see that Faye was in fact the headliner, and was met with warmth by the audience (alongside a few hushed detractors). Showalter’s version of this comeback performance wants to be triumphant, but instead is emptily campy and frenetic. By conjuring an imaginary backup choir in pink robes and harsh lighting, the scene minimizes Tammy Faye instead of celebrating her. It’s one symptom of how the film predictably sensationalizes her physical appearance, even though it claims to want to complicate her cartoonish media image. Ultimately, the documentary already accomplished that goal, containing everything one would wish the fictional film had — the story of a fascinating, fun, and flawed woman who maneuvered the tight corners the male leadership of Evangelicalism (including her own husband) painted her into. The real Tammy Faye Bakker was a sharp character who, contrary to the popular perception of her, was always in on the joke.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now playing in theaters. The 2000 documentary of the same name can be streamed on various platforms.

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