Directed by Michael Showalter; written by Abe Sylvia
Tammy Faye’s eyes refers to Tammy Faye Bakker, who along with her husband, Jim Bakker, “rose from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcast network and theme park,” according to the film’s press releases. Her televangelical empire fell apart in the late 1980s. Jim Bakker went to prison in 1989 for “swindling the faithful” out of $158 million.
Michael Showalter’s film, from a screenplay by Abe Sylvia, attempts to both mock and humanize the Bakkers. The filmmakers, however, confuse “humanize”, acknowledging that people have different and sometimes quite contradictory sides, with “forgive” and “excuse”. Having wrongly set themselves the task of turning Tammy Faye Bakker into an icon of female empowerment and sexual tolerance, they make the even more serious mistake of treating the fundamentalist Christian huckster with kid gloves.
Tammy Faye’s eyes briefly dramatizes the childhood of Tammy Faye, endured under difficult circumstances in International Falls, Minnesota. She is the daughter of a divorced and remarried mother (Cherry Jones), herself a Pentecostal preacher. Later, at Bible college in 1960, Tammy Faye (now Jessica Chastain) meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Bakker, in our first glimpse of him, gleefully informs his listeners that his view of religion places much importance on the “here and now.” God, he asserts, “does not want us to be poor.” He scoffs at the notion that the poor are “blessed.”
Jim and Tammy Faye soon marry and hit the road as traveling preachers. They eventually catch the attention of preacher Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Bakker becomes CBN’s first anchor the 700 club. In 1971, they meet thuggish evangelist Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), busy “fighting the liberal agenda, the feminist agenda, the homosexual agenda.”
Tammy Faye is already expressing her displeasure at her husband’s personal conduct. “You can’t leave me at home, alone and isolated,” she says. But she regularly does just that.
Jim and Tammy Faye eventually launched their own Christian television operation in 1974, the PTL (Praise the Lord) Television Network. Donor money starts pouring in. In 1978, they open Heritage USA, a “Christian-themed” water park, theme park, and residential complex in Fort Mill, South Carolina. It becomes the third largest park of its kind by attendance in the US.
Scandals break out. Financial Scandals: Jim Bakker siphons off millions for the couple’s lavish lifestyle and other expenses. The charlotte watcher executes a series of devastating revelations. Sex Scandals: Jim is accused of making “homosexual advances” while Tammy Faye begins dating a record producer (Mark Wystrach). Bakker takes to the airwaves to denounce attacks by the “secular press.” “Tammy and I,” he says, “are under the most vicious attack in the history of this ministry.”
In the mid-1980s, Tammy Faye takes a risk interviewing an AIDS patient in Los Angeles. He says to the air: “Jesus loves us just as we are.” Falwell is horrified.
Eventually, things go from bad to worse. For now, Tammy Faye is addicted to pills and almost died from an overdose. When the bottom goes down, after promising help, Falwell betrays the Bakkers and denounces them in public. Bakker, who “stole PTL blind,” goes to jail, and Tammy Faye goes missing. She divorces him. Ten years pass before Tammy Faye gets the chance to sing in public again. A caption informs us that she died of cancer in 2007, after a long battle with the disease.
The Bakkers’ story has dramatic possibilities, and neither of them would have to be portrayed as a monster, but would have to be approached differently, much more critically, as part of the larger American social drama. As it is, the events are told in a perfectly efficient and professional way, but very superficially.
The marked rise of televangelism and Christian fundamentalism as a political force in the 1970s and 1980s is related to the economic decline of the United States and the shift to the right of the entire political establishment. As we noted in our obituary of Falwell in 2007, in the vacuum created by the Democratic Party’s abandonment of any program of social reform and the prolonged decline of the unions, the right-wing fundamentalist, along with “dozens of other television preachers, helped mobilize disoriented sections of the middle class and working class behind a program that resulted in a dramatic transfer of wealth from the working class to the super-rich, as well as enriching a sizable layer of the upper middle class, including Falwell himself.”
The Bakkers helped themselves to millions of dollars, at the urging of their viewers. The latter made sacrifices, left without, so that the PTL ministry could “save souls.” The New York Daily News he explained in 2017 that the Bakkers’ “shopping parties reflected insatiable greed. In 1984, after an exhaustive tour of the luxury shops in Manhattan, they added $24,500 worth of fur (including a full-length Blackglama) and $27,500 worth of jewelry (one item was a $6,000 diamond bracelet) to their insurance. owner”.
While in New York, the News noted, “the couple stayed in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, complete with a fireplace and baby grand piano. … Later that year, the couple chartered a Gulfstream for a $107,000 flight to Palm Springs. As soon as Jim’s feet hit the ground, he ran off to buy three luxury cars, including two vintage Rolls-Royces, for a total of $170,000. They shared a secret suite at the Heritage Gold Hotel, complete with gold-plated bathroom fixtures and a 50-foot walk-in closet. Even the doghouse was air-conditioned.”
John Wigger, biographer of the Bakkers, has explained that coinciding with their rise to fame, the couple “embraced the prosperity gospel, which taught believers to expect the best of everything. In the post-World War II era of wealth, the good life and the pious life merged. The message was a perfect fit for the 1980s. Many evangelicals may not have agreed with the Gordon Gecko, the fictional character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film ‘Wall Street,’ that ‘greed is good.’ , but in general they had little patience with the idea that moderation, let alone poverty, was better.”
Tammy Faye’s eyes treat all this lightly. We’re led to believe that Tammy Faye had nothing to do with the wholesale looting. In any case, she certainly benefited from it.
More importantly, Showalter’s film has very little to say about the damaging and polluting role that fundamentalism and religion in general play in American life. The American ruling elite, among the most ruthless and murderous in world history, clothes itself in Christian piety. All the thousands of elected officials who fleece the public in the interest of financial oligarchs follow suit. Nowhere in the advanced capitalist world is there such criminality, and nowhere is there a greater curse on and by the Bible. The filthy rich, swimming in luxury, promise the downtrodden that “a better place” awaits them.
The film does not address any of this. Its main theme is that Tammy Faye Bakker had a good heart, that she was tolerant, that she somehow represented female empowerment.
Chastain, production notes tell us, studied Bakker “for seven years, going so far as to memorize all his mannerisms and vocal inflections from the hours of tape he watched.” Chastain does a good impersonation. Actors tend to imagine that physical imitation constitutes getting to the core of a human personality. Hollywood in general today likes to imagine that achieving verisimilitude in terms of physical locations and period hairstyles and clothing is the same as capturing the truth of a historical era or social setting.
Chastain, one of the producers of Tammy Faye’s eyes (and who won an Academy Award for his performance in the film), states that his subject matter “was nothing like the caricature the media fed on. … She preached acceptance and compassion and she meant it, and that’s what we wanted people to see in this movie. When everyone turned their backs on people with HIV and AIDS, she invited a high-profile gay pastor who had AIDS to come on her show. She also hosted Praise The Lord network shows all day, wrote four books, and released twenty-four albums. She was never paid any of it, she paid the church back.” This is so much deceitful dust thrown into the public eye.
The production notes go so far as to proclaim Bakker as “an icon ahead of his time.” Some publicists have emboldened themselves to argue that in a world “where powerful men, religious or not, escape scandal with little or no consequence, Tammy Faye stands out. Unlike Jim, she never walked away from her faith or eschewed her kind and loving version of God for a fire and brimstone replacement. Because her heart remained open to the experiences of others, she was loved despite her transgressions and evolved beyond her televangelist and tabloid stardom.”
The makers of the 2000 documentary of the same title, on which the present fictional film is based, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, observe that “Like it or not, Jim and Tammy Faye were television pioneers. … We felt it was important to tell that story. Without Jim and Tammy Faye you wouldn’t have the Kardashians, Oprah or Good morning america .” What higher praise…!
In its elmer porch (1927), the American novelist Sinclair Lewis left us a scathing picture of the religious quackery of the early decades of the 20th century. His main character, a heavy-drinking womanizer, turns to the ministry as a means of earning a living, as another would choose dentistry or business. “Where could Elmer find a profession with a higher social standing than the ministry, thousands listening to him, guests at banquets and all. Much easier than… Well, not exactly easier; all the ministers worked hard—great sacrifices—constant demands on their sympathy—heroic struggle against vice—but at the same time, elegant and superior work, surrounded by books, lofty thoughts, and the best ladies in town or country as the case. ”
Gantry later teams up with the charismatic Sharon Falconer (an obvious reference to evangelist and media celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927). Every night, Gantry and Falconer save souls and rack up converts. However, Lewis writes: “Elmer could not consider converts human. Sometimes when he was in the audience… he would look up at the platform, where a row of convinced men were kneeling with their arms on their chairs and their broad bottoms at the crowd, and he wanted to snicker and grab a gun. small board. But five minutes later he would be up there, kneeling with a sewing machine agent with the tremor of the next day, his arm around the customer’s shoulder, pleading in the tone of a mother cow, ‘Can’t you surrender to Christ? , brother? ? Doesn’t he want to give up all the awful habits that are ruining him and keeping him from success? Listens! God will help you to do good! And when you feel lonely, old man, remember that he is there, waiting to speak with you!’”
Such disrespectful attitudes must be revived, sooner rather than later!