Tammy Faye Bakker comes off as lovable media personality and pop-culture icon in new film

Jessica Chastain already is gaining recognition for her portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker in the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

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Film Fare by M.V. Moorhead

One day in 2001, I spent about an hour with Tammy Faye. She was Tammy Faye Messner by that time, not Tammy Faye Bakker.

We chowed down together while I interviewed her at the food court at an outdoor swap meet in east Mesa, where she was signing her memoir Tammy: Telling It My Way. The copy I got that day is still on my bookshelf; she signed it: “God bless you Mark—Love, Tammy Faye.”

MV Moorhead
M.V. Moorhead

For those who may not remember, Tammy Faye was a star of evangelical TV in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Growing up poor in International Falls, Minn., she married aspiring preacher Jim Bakker, who she met at Bible college and who believed that God wanted us—especially him—to be prosperous.

They had a traveling Christian puppet show with which they broke into TV through Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (Jim was the original host of The 700 Club). Then they struck out on their own, founding the enormously lucrative PTL Satellite Network and other ventures, such as the theme park Heritage USA.

She was the life of the party on their show, and they lived in conspicuous and kitschy luxury funded by viewer donations.

Financial improprieties and sex scandals deflated the PTL enterprise in the late ’80s. Jim Bakker went to federal prison. Tammy Faye divorced him, remarried developer Roe Messner, and then, well, she had lunch with me. Did I mention that?

By the time I met her, Tammy Faye was on a roll thanks, in part, to a feature documentary of 2000 by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato called The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Probably initiated to mock its subject, this film helped her rehabilitate her image into a lovable media personality and pop-culture icon.

Now the same title has been given to a dramatized version of the story, directed by Michael Showalter from a script by Bailey and Barbato, and starring Jessica Chastain in the title role.

Based on my single brief meeting, I have to say that Chastain disappears into the part. This is the woman I met back in 2001. To what extent either that interview or this performance represents the whole person can be known only to those who knew her better than either Chastain or I did—Tammy Faye passed on, from cancer, in 2007 at 65.

But as far as her public persona, Chastain nails it. She also gives us notes of the humor, the bold vivacity, the restlessness, the impatience, the lack of wifely subservience that made her a handful in the evangelical world of the time, and, more striking still, a sense of genuine spiritual exaltation that alienated her from the thievery.

Chastain will probably get award buzz, and it won’t be undeserved.

Andrew Garfield plays Jim Bakker, and his excellence would be easy to overlook. There’s poignancy in his dim, queasy realizations of his carefully self-justified avarice and his guilty resentment of his wife’s popularity. Cherry Jones is terrific as Tammy Faye’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense mother, who smells trouble the first time Jim comes into the house. Frederic Lehne makes his presence felt as her more easygoing, affectionate stepfather, and in the smallish role of Jerry Falwell, Vincent D’Onofrio has fun imitating the way the preacher would clamp down on terminal consonants: “JiMM.”

Aside from the superb acting and period flavor, this Eyes of Tammy Faye is pretty good, not quite great. Bailey and Barbato simplify and streamline Tammy Faye’s life, and maybe whitewash it a bit, too.

At one point, as things are falling apart, Jim screams at Tammy that he did what he did to satisfy her greed, but while she’s clearly shown enjoying the glitz, we never see her ask him for anything other than conjugal relations (which he neglects).

It’s unclear whether the movie’s position is that she was greedy, or that he used her as an excuse for his own rapacity. The movie also gets a little shapeless in its final act. Bailey, Barbato and Showalter can’t quite seem to figure out how to wrap it up, though Chastain is powerful in her closing scene.

Those who don’t remember Tammy Faye on TV may think that these performances are caricatures, as many thought about the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Fargo, another movie with a dauntless, cheerful Minnesotan heroine.

But those who watched The PTL Club back then, or even those from an equivalent religious or cultural or even geographical background, will realize that this isn’t an exaggeration at all.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is rated PG-13 and plays at Chandler Fashion 20 and other multiplexes Valley-wide.

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