There’s at least one every year. The film that makes me act as the Lonely Defender, a film I like — perhaps unreasonably — more than just about everyone else. Sometimes, it’s a messy film; perhaps its reach exceeds its grasp. Often, it has big things to say about America, or Our Times, or even humanity at large. Always, it’s a film with a surprise inside, something I wasn’t expecting.
Michael Showalter’s The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is this year’s I, Tonya — a film about a female who’s been savaged in the press, rightly or wrongly, for her involvement in crimes that were more directly perpetrated by men. Like I, Tonya, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is sympathetic to the controversial woman at its center (though in this case, it’s a little easier to buy that Tammy Faye really didn’t have any idea what the hell her husband was up to). As in I, Tonya, iconic costumes are immaculately recreated, and the film jets through history at quite a clip, starting with a precocious young girl’s big dreams in a bleak upbringing. There’s a tough-love mother, played here by Cherry Jones, who at first seems like she could be just as vicious as Allison Janney’s scene-stealing turn mama LaVona in I, Tonya. (Turns out, she’s not.) There’s a whirlwind romance with a too-good-to-be-true young fellow who will be her undoing. (Here, that’s Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker.) There are musical numbers — though, naturally, instead of ice skating routines, we get Tammy Faye belting her heart out for Jesus (and Benjamin Franklin) on national television. As in I, Tonya, the crimes committed are more of an afterthought to the fun these characters had while perpetrating them, and the way they set the dominos up to topple over into tragedy for our (anti-?)heroine.
And, as in I, Tonya, there’s a big, big performance at the center, which is essentially a film like this one’s raison d’être. You can’t look at the hair and makeup that transform Jessica Chastain into Tammy Faye Bakker and not instantly think: awards. Chastain is overdue as an awards frontrunner, and she’s every bit as good as, and probably better than, the other actresses who have let their hair, makeup, costumes, accents, and the resume of the person they’re playing carry them up to the Oscar podium in the last decade or two — including Renée Zellweger in Judy, Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, and especially Meryl Streep in the dreadful The Iron Lady.
So a lot of The Eyes Of Tammy Faye feels like we’ve seen it before — and that’s also because, of course, the film already exists as a documentary with the same title. This new version follows a familiar formula for awards season hopefuls, but it also takes a page from I, Tonya in what set it apart from the typical awards bait biopic — allowing a woman who was pulverized by the press to reclaim her dignity in a Hollywood narrative, and reminding today’s audience that the late 20th century was particularly unkind to women culpable of any wrongdoing in the public eye. Almost inevitably, women like Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark, Princess Diana, and so on were zeroed in on and ridiculed with more malice than their male counterparts, even when the men around them were guiltier of greater crimes. Perhaps we can look upon films like I, Tonya and The Eyes Of Tammy Faye as belated Public Service Announcements, one of the sweetest gifts this post-Trump, post-Weinstein age could bestow upon the misbegotten media villainesses of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years. The reckonings are finally here.
If Showalter is rather soft on the crimes Jim Bakker was convicted of, it’s because he’d rather shine a light on an even greater evil afoot in the world of televangelism. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye casts Jerry Fallwell as the clear villain of the piece, and lets the Bakkers off with a cinematic slap on the wrist. Instead of painting all these holy rolling hucksters with the same broad brush, a line is drawn in the sand between the “good crooked Christians” and the “bad crooked Christians,” giving this tale more nuance than you might expect. Sure, swindling your parishioners is bad, Showalter argues. But you know what’s worse? The way men like Jerry Falwell have turned preaching about God’s love into an instrument of hate. Next to Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye Bakker comes off like an angel of mercy. And that’s just fine with me — The Eyes Of Tammy Faye has bigger fish to fry.
Christian fanaticism is hardly new — it’s been used to far more sweeping violent ends than we’ve seen in America lately. And though our forefathers forbade it, conservative causes have pretty much always shaped our politics — riling up the right isn’t so novel, either. But there’s something particularly bizarre happening with the religious right in America these days, as it embraces the brutes and sinners and abandons the beliefs that were once core to the faith. Those of us on the left think we see it pretty clear — they’ve been conned. Donald Trump is still raising money to “stop the steal.” Conservative skepticism of vaccinations against COVID-19 are largely responsible for current outbreaks and countless unnecessary deaths. Newsmax continues to air conspiracy theorist videos perpetuating QAnon myths. Christian evangelism has always involved some level of setting facts aside to uphold the myth, but at some point truth or reason or even just baseline humanity usually intervened. Now the so-called gospel is being followed to increasingly deadly extremes. Tucker Carlson. Marjorie Green. Q. These are the new televangelists.
And you can draw a line from them right back to Jerry Falwell, and the moment he used Jim and Tammy Faye’s misdeeds to oust them and take control of their network, silencing their voices while amplifying his own. Did Jim and Tammy Faye deserve to lose their megaphone? Probably. But at least what they were preaching was supposed to make people feel good. Thanks to Falwell and his minions, Christianity has taken a dark turn since the days when Tammy Faye’s goofy Sunday school puppetry had little Christian eyeballs glued to the screen. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye depicts a moment in history when maybe, just maybe, things could have gone a different direction… if only Jim Bakker had kept his dick in his pants and his hand out of the coffer.
There’s a lot more to be said about religious hypocrisy and Christian bamboozling than could ever fit into one film. If The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is guilty of anything, it’s of alighting on one compelling insight into the rarefied world of Christian celebrities, then abandoning it to show us some equally intriguing angle. Showalter’s film is certainly imperfect and surely a little messy, with a midsection that sags slightly and a couple scenes involving marital squabbles and Tammy Faye’s pill addiction that hit the standard biopic beats a bit too squarely. The film’s biggest misstep is in its portrayal of Gary Paxton, a songwriter and producer who had his eye on Tammy Faye while her husband’s gaze was fixed on building his TV empire. As portrayed here by Mark Wystrach, Paxton comes across as an impossibly sensitive cowboy hunk with a guitar — it’s hard to see this Christian Adonis going for a chipper ditz like Tammy Faye. Their seduction scene feels more calibrated for soap opera than satire. (In reality, Paxton produced the “Monster Mash.” I wish Showalter had made time to highlight the true nature of this stranger-than-fiction affair, and made Paxton feel like he belongs in the Bakkers’ wacky circle of influence.)
Recent reexaminations of women we were collectively unkind to in the 80s and 90s — like I, Tonya or Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson, and, presumably, Beanie Feldstein’s Monica Lewinsky in the currently running American Crime Story: Impeachment — do like to have their cake and eat it, too. Showalter certainly has some fun at Tammy Faye’s expense with how tacky and clownish she looks in certain scenes. Chastain could bring the exact same performance to Saturday Night Live, and it wouldn’t be underplayed. But it’s clear that Showalter and especially Chastain feel love and admiration for Tammy Faye above all, particularly in the film’s strong final act, which has more in common with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler than anything else. (It sort of made me wish the whole movie centered on the old and tragic Tammy Faye, though it probably would have been too much to take.) Chastain may find that the coming Best Actress lineup is too crowded to make room for her Tammy Faye Bakker, thanks in large part to other big, big performances with transformational hair, makeup, and accents (Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, and Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, to name a few contenders). But she makes the movie her own, doing much more than a caricature — she doesn’t just nail Tammy Faye’s lips, voice, and eyelashes, but her soul, too.
Some have wondered why this narrative version The Eyes Of Tammy Faye must exist at all, when we’ve already got the documentary. Well, we don’t need any more goddamn entertainment about the British monarchy, either, but as long as we’re getting a bunch of versions of stuff we’ve already seen before, I’ll take plenty more where this came from. (And I’ll happily watch this glossy, overly manicured, kinda messy, maybe-a-touch-too-soft villain origin story over Cruella any day. This is my Cruella.) Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tonya Harding as a flawed human being earned her her first Oscar nomination, and her portrayal of Tonya Harding as a chain-smoking bitch in sequins earned the character a gay following. Tammy Faye Bakker is already a camp gay icon, though mainly known only by an older crowd. I was vaguely familiar with the name Tammy Faye Bakker from half-remembered tabloid stories I saw in the supermarket as a kid. I’d heard of the documentary, but never watched it. I had no idea that Tammy Faye was what passes as a trailblazer for queer rights in the televangelical world. (I could have just as easily assumed she was another Anita Bryant.)
Maybe an overly made up Christian grifter isn’t the first equality icon we need to thrust back into the rainbow spotlight for a new generation to become familiar with, but doing so for Tammy Faye now sure can’t hurt. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye recreates a real interview Tammy Faye conducted with a gay man living with AIDS in 1985, at a time when the president was all but ignoring the rising pandemic and men like Falwell were preaching that it was God’s punishment. It’s a stirring reminder that Christianity is not inherently synonymous with intolerance, as much as men like Falwell preach that it is. Imagine if there were more Tammy Fayes in this world, and fewer Jerry Falwells.
Unfortunately, this battle over Christian souls (and pocketbooks) isn’t ancient history — Falwell’s ideology lives on. You can probably turn the TV to some kooky Christian channel and hear the same words echoed right now. What has been forgotten is that any influential Christians ever thought otherwise. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is here to remind us that Christianity could have gone another way — toward the light. Instead, it was co-opted by Republicans’ political interests to capitalize on faith and ignorance, dusting off misogyny, xenophobia, white supremacy, and all kinds of bigotry to meet its ends. American Christianity today isn’t about love, it’s about fear — what the “radical Left” is going to steal from you and make you do. Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps that’s the way it’s always been. But Tammy Faye, at least, had a different vision — and she brought that vision to millions of fans for a number of years, while she was allowed to.
The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is every bit the condemnation of twisted Christianity most of us would like it be, except it doesn’t scold, or shout, or bite. Like Tammy Faye, it just pops one too many happy pills, paints a smile on, and lets us see this world as it ought to be.
(And looks freakishly fabulous doing it. Don’t ask where the money came from.)