A drawing of "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" shows the title character singing with her fist raised.
Illustration by Tiphany Jackson, The University of the Arts

A Staggering Labor of Love: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

With two Oscar wins, the 2021 movie cemented Jessica Chastain’s place in movie history and became a pioneer for future biopics.

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A drawing of "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" shows the title character singing with her fist raised.
Illustration by Tiphany Jackson, The University of the Arts

With two Oscar wins, the 2021 movie cemented Jessica Chastain’s place in movie history and became a pioneer for future biopics.

Ten years ago, during the press tour for “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain’s stars slowly began to align. After watching the 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” she bought the film rights to Faye’s life story and began to gather the pieces to construct the film. A tribute to one of the most well-known evangelists in history, the film follows Faye’s religious upbringing and her rise to stardom until the Bakkers’ downfall and her husband’s arrest in the late 1980s.

Upon its release, the film received mixed reviews from critics, with many wondering why the narrative glossed over Faye’s own culpability in swindling the public. Telling the story of Faye’s (questionable) blindness to her husband’s actions and her ability to feel God’s love in even the most inane of times (read: praying with her husband when their car is towed), the film gives a much-deserved, comprehensive picture of a woman who was often reduced to a single dimension.

While it is important to consider the consequences of a piece of work, at times it is even more important to take into account the intentions of its creators. To a degree, the film exonerates Tammy Faye Messner as a woman so absorbed by her love for God and faith in people that she was led astray. However, it would be impossible to call her, as her mother does in the script, a blind follower. She was a smart, caring, deeply compassionate woman, and in a way, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” succeeds in redeeming her.

The film makes it clear that though she was never oblivious to what was going on around her, at her core she was a woman that wanted to give and receive love, and the rest was the trappings of wealth that followed her success. Even as she ascended the ladder of televangelism, the fame ate away at her soul and ruined the childlike innocence that was so vital to both the character and the real woman. In many ways, she completely lost control of her life, and her signature makeup (which would go on to become the butt of many late-night jokes) was one of the only ways for her to feel like herself, becoming her trademark over the years.

In a phenomenal feat of acting, executive producer and lead actor Jessica Chastain manages to bring nuance, integrity and an unexpected dignity to a person many write off as histrionic and absurd, if not downright criminal. And although they are criticized for hindering an actor’s ability to emote, the prosthetics in the film only add to the story and make the acting more impressive; it’s easy to believe Chastain’s and Andrew Garfield’s aging through the decades. Even with hours of prep and pounds of latex plastered to their faces, both actors deliver performances that are nothing short of triumphant.

Garfield’s Jim Bakker isn’t detestable even at the close of the film despite the monstrous nature of his actions, and Chastain makes such a sympathetic woman out of Faye it’s like watching a close friend personally go through the hardships and scandals the late televangelist suffered. For her stellar work, Chastain won an Oscar for best performance by an actress in a leading role, and for their monumental dedication, effort and detail, the makeup and hair team, led by Stephanie Ingram, Linda Dowds and Justin Raleigh, took home a second Oscar for best achievement in makeup and hairstyling. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” also garnered several other nominations, including a SAG award, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, of which it won the first two (outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role and best make-up & hair).

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” begins, as most biopics do, with a formative childhood experience. A young girl is told that she cannot be seen in church because she is a reminder of her mother’s sins; she wants nothing more than to feel God’s love — a love she understands to be all-encompassing, and that she knows she deserves if she can experience it just once. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, with Tammy constantly giving and reaching for the love she knows is out there, even when people tell her otherwise.

“I’m a very practical person,” she tells future husband Jim Bakker in Chastain’s screen-ready Minnesotan accent. “I don’t pretend to be something I’m not, because what you see is all you get.” As a woman who simply longs to heal people, she sees her potential future with Jim and the possibility to spread God’s love. The score, composed by Theodore Shapiro, heightens the emotions of the moment, with the familiar “Battle Hymn of the Republic” making a spectral appearance in an early scene and airy piano melodies that shift from light to melancholy just by bringing a note down a half step.

Soon, Tammy and Jim marry and head back to her childhood home for a reality check, brought to them by her mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), a character that is both steely and full of apt warnings for naïve young girls. Here, Jones manages to inject just the right amount of disapproval for her daughter’s husband without saying it outright, creating tension around the Bakkers that starts a rolling cloud of foreshadowing. Early on, the script sets in motion the wheels of Jim Bakker’s avarice, arriving to pick up Tammy Faye in a brand-new car and telling her that it is a gift from God.

When she looks uncertain, he begs her to “have faith in Him, and in me, and in us,” a tactic that he employs throughout both the film and their life together. He invokes Tammy Faye’s religious faith as a reason to believe and blindly trust in him, and shrouds her misgivings with his own assertion that they are doing the Lord’s work. Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy’s belief in their righteousness slides in perfectly next to Garfield’s just-over-the-top-salesperson style, creating a couple that seems more ambitious than greedy as they set off to start their careers.

A few years later and Jim and Tammy are on the Christian Broadcast Network hosting a show that is a combination of singing, preaching and puppetry. When Tammy announces her pregnancy live on air, the donation phones immediately start ringing, a sound that will echo each time the Bakkers make an emotional plea to their audiences — the real music to Jim Bakker’s ears. A meeting with Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr. plays out the requisite “woman sitting at the men’s table” scene, but more importantly introduces and reinforces Tammy Faye’s open-armed approach to life and love, one of the more powerful of the film’s messages.

While discussing how to “save” America, Falwell declares his fight against the liberal, feminist and homosexual agendas, to which Tammy responds, “I don’t think of them as homosexuals, I just think of them as other human beings that I love.” This echoes Tammy’s real-life adoration of her LGBTQ audience, whom she embraced whole-heartedly and without judgment. Jim again attempts to chastise and belittle her, but she sticks to her guns and draws on her faith, bringing about the conception of PTL — the Bakkers’ very own Praise the Lord network that ran from 1974 to 1989.

Chastain is belting out Christian disco hits at this point in the film, bringing her musical talents to a project for the first time; much of the couple’s success is grounded in Tammy Faye’s love of performance. Strengthened by Jim’s sales-pitch preaching, the entertainment duo sends the network’s popularity skyrocketing even as Jim runs its finances into the ground.

As their star begins to rise, their personal lives begin to fall. Once again, Faye’s mother appears on screen to humble her recklessly faithful daughter, pulling a newspaper clipping out and reading “PTL’s Bakker diverts ministry funds for new building project.” The words are harsh, but Jones’ delivery conveys her genuine concern and it’s almost frustrating how well Chastain plays the blissfully unaware Tammy, clinging to her religious work and ignoring the very real warning her mother is giving her. “We’re not doing anything wrong, though,” she later says to Jim, as she sits in her silk robe on a lavish bed, in one of the only moments in the film where she gets close to admitting culpability.

The other comes while shopping with her mother when Rachel asks, “Can you pay for this?” to which Tammy responds with arrogant unawareness: “Pledges are rolling in” — all the implications in those four words are as overlooked as the price tag on the coat they’re buying. In the weeks following, Jim’s treatment of her is now openly humiliating on many levels; he mocks her in front of others and orders her to hurry up for a broadcast, only to have her stand despondently, parrot a few of his own words, and say “Hallelujah” as the phones start ringing.

In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the tension between the two is beyond evident, played perfectly by Garfield and Chastain as one forcibly eclipses the other and sneaks away to discuss important issues (read: being investigated for wire fraud) and the other stares forlornly at the ground, abandoned yet again but determined to see her way through. Facing such harsh treatment from her husband, Tammy inevitably runs in the other direction, to her producer who showers her with the support and adoration that Jim refuses to give her.

In a distinct moment of recognizing her own power, Tammy uses her faith in God to convince a contractor to trust that there is a purpose to Jim’s vision of “the first Christian waterpark” and to gamble on the Bakkers. Afterward, she points this out to Jim in a flash of rebellion that is one part anger, and two parts sadness, because it is undeniable to anyone paying attention how badly Jim has mistreated her and misused her faith in God. Jim, meanwhile, only further manipulates her and threatens to divorce her.

It’s all the more devious when the next day, Jim snows her with a seemingly sincere apology — and a caveat that she must confess to her infidelity with her producer, on air, to their viewers. Of course, the trilling of PTL donation phones accompanies her admission. It’s around this time that Tammy loses her connection to God; her prayers go unanswered, and it becomes evident that however it happened, she’s a far throw from the fresh-faced believer she used to be. Her tearful apology leaves her drained and sobbing, and a quick cut to upbeat music and Jim’s excited announcement of a PTL satellite really hammers home the dichotomy between their flashy televangelist life and how close Tammy is to completely falling apart.

In an uplifting moment in her painfully oppressed later years, Tammy Faye interviews pastor Steve Pieters. Finally reconnecting her to her core belief in love (“Jesus loves us through anything”) and playing out in a wonderfully acted, yet still true-to-life mirror image of the actual interview, this scene is pivotal to the film. It’s Tammy Faye reclaiming her compassionate roots and pushing back, and at the time it was a groundbreaking interview for the fact that Steve Pieters was openly gay and living with AIDS.

The response, even years after, is exactly what Tammy Fay would have wanted — “It keeps reverberating through my life,” Pieters is quoted as saying, recalling conversations with people who have told him, “I was 12 and I heard your interview, and I suddenly knew that I could be gay and Christian and I didn’t have to kill myself.” He also remembered being “struck by her compassion and supportiveness and affirmation right away,” a legacy that executive producer Jessica Chastain has endeavored to immortalize with “The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Soon after the Pieters interview, Jim admits to his own heinous infidelities and crimes, including a sexual act performed on a woman and paying her off with PTL donors’ money, which he characteristically tries to blame on Tammy, prefacing the confession with “after you did what you did with Gary [her producer].” This is when their partnership finally meets its explosive, long-time-coming finale.

Tammy expresses how sick her faith in him makes her and Jim retorts, “I built you an empire,” to which Tammy gives the chilling response, “You built you an empire,” finally opening her eyes to how Jim has seen her all these years — a tool he used to climb his way to the top. Whoever’s it is, the lucrative empire comes crumbling down around them and Jim Bakker is indicted and found guilty of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy.

The most redeeming moment, for Tammy Faye and the audience alike, comes in the final minutes. With no one to turn to and networks not returning her calls, she is invited to sing at the Oral Roberts School of Divinity’s Festival of Praise and Redemption. She visits Jim in prison, admitting she feels she doesn’t belong in church and hasn’t been in years, lines that Chastain delivers in a casual tone but tear at viewers with their candid bleakness. Shockingly, Jim apologizes, saying “It’s my fault you feel that way” and finally taking responsibility for leading her down the wrong path all those years ago.

Tammy travels from her mother’s funeral to Oral Roberts, an ichthys that has seen better days but stubbornly hangs on (similar to Tammy Faye’s own faith) to the back of her Honda Accord following her all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma. As she heads for the stage, the score swells with tones reminiscent of her earlier, lighter days, and she nervously readies herself for her first performance in years. Despite everything that has happened, she still manages to let God speak through her, losing herself in a hearty, all-consuming rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” ends on a close-up, the look in her eyes echoing the viewers’ relief that she is finally back where she belongs.

Writer Profile

Emily Elizabeth Louie

American University
Business Administration

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