Tragedy and Delusion in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Article ID: JAR0322CB | By: Cole Burgett

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Directed by Michael Showalter

(Searchlight Pictures, 2021)

Rated PG–13

**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Eyes of Tammy Faye.**


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​The funniest thing I have seen in a long time is Vincent D’Onofrio portraying Jerry Falwell Sr. as a kind of Baptist Kingpin, complete with a posse of dark suit-clad cronies who linger menacingly in the shadows of rooms while he schemes to hijack The PTL Club from Andrew Garfield’s Jim Bakker. I grew up among Baptists who’d make Bob Jones look progressive, alongside Pentecostals who would be right at home as audience members of The PTL Club; for me, watching 2021’s Academy Award-nominated The Eyes of Tammy Faye was nothing short of a riot.

Personal amusements aside, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a film that probably works best as a companion to the compelling 2000 documentary that inspired it. While watching that documentary is not a prerequisite to enjoy the film on its own terms, the movie will certainly appeal best to people who have a working knowledge of the hilarious and tragic hijinks that ensued in America in the 1970’s and 1980’s. What the documentary — by nature of its medium — lacks in pathos, this film more than makes up for by giving viewers a look at the life, times, and hardships of the controversial late-20th century televangelist, here portrayed by a truly mesmerizing Jessica Chastain in an Oscar-nominated performance.

Certain scenes that actually played on American televisions nearly forty years ago are recreated in the film, in some ways mirrored shot-for-shot. It must feel like déjà vu for those who lived through this nonsense the first time around. But where this film truly shines is in its quieter moments, when Tammy Faye is no longer in front of a camera or basking in a hot spotlight. In these scenes, the real ambiguity of character comes out, leading viewers to ask the question people have been asking for decades: does Tammy Faye really buy all that she’s selling, or is it all just a means to an end for her, a way of making a quick buck at the expense of the burnt-out and the gullible?

Wisely, the film never seeks to provide a definitive answer to the question. That conclusion is left up to the viewer to determine for themselves, much like it was at the end of the 20th century for those who witnessed the collapse of the PTL empire firsthand. Instead, the film opts to paint viewers a portrait of Tammy Faye that perhaps wasn’t as obvious on the television sets, portraying her as a human being of texture and contradiction.

Chronicling the Absurd. It’s really no surprise that the rise and fall of The PTL Club has received the Hollywood treatment. The true story is the stuff of movies, from fraud and conspiracy to sex scandals and backroom deals, all wrapped in the dressings of religious rapture. At the epicenter stood Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, whose 1974 televangelism program, The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, launched a kind of television empire for the Assemblies of God (The PTL Satellite Network) that dominated the airwaves until a series of scandals brought it all crumbling down in 1989.

Many of the problems arose (according to later biographers and chronicles) when Jim Bakker, Tammy’s husband, set his sights on building Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre Christian theme park in South Carolina. Strains on their marriage led to a whirlwind of affairs and one-night stands, the total truth of which will likely never be fully known. Jerry Falwell — a Baptist — got involved in the mess and, depending on who you ask, either attempted to rescue the PTL Network from its compromised owners or conspired to steal it out from under its loving parents through subterfuge. By the time Jim was sentenced to federal prison in 1989 for charges of wire and mail fraud, Tammy had become addicted to prescription drugs. They finally divorced in 1992. Jim was released from prison in 1994 and returned to broadcasting in 2003. Tammy remarried and died of cancer in 2007.1

Regardless of how one views the Bakkers, there is little doubt that their empire helped to lay the foundation upon which many of the most successful modern televangelists stand. Some would classify the PTL network as part of the Word of Faith movement, which is primarily a Pentecostal and charismatic phenomenon, and consists of teachings that suggest God desires for His faithful to prosper personally and financially on this side of eternity. Expressions like “name it and claim it” or “confess it, possess it” are common expressions used to demonstrate this kind of religious countenance. Names such as Oral Roberts, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and T. D. Jakes are commonly associated with the movement going into the 21st century.2

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is far less concerned with covering the theological implications of the Word of Faith movement than it is with exploring the psychological breakdown that led Tammy into affairs and drug addictions. And, frankly, that’s probably for the best. Rather than watch Hollywood ham-fistedly try and handle theological nuance, viewers are instead introduced to characters who, by this point in history, are caricatures of themselves, having been described as “the Ken and Barbie of televangelism.”3 This is a good description, as one cannot help but get the sense that, somewhere along the way, these are two people who lost touch with reality — including the divine.

Fake Plastic Trees. Radiohead is a band you should be familiar with, regardless of whether you like the sound of their music — this is an announcement. Their sophomore studio effort, The Bends (1995), consistently turns up on lists of the greatest albums ever produced. With cutting lyrics that pierce a culture mired in the swamps of technological advancement and digital personas, the band has attracted the attention of several Christian writers in the last couple of decades.4 One of their more popular songs, “Fake Plastic Trees,” drowns listeners in a world of façade and cheap masquerade. Of his “fake plastic love,” singer Thom Yorke croons that “she looks like the real thing / she tastes like the real thing,” the implication being that she is not, in fact, real, but a beautiful, almost-convincing illusion.5

In terms of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, York’s lyrics become an apt descriptor for the characters of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. One gets the sense that maybe, once, when these two people were younger, they were committed to the study of Scripture. But somewhere along the way, ministry became less about ministering and more about feeding the egos of two individuals perfect for each other in the most insidious of ways, who truly believed themselves born to occupy the spotlight.

Central to the film’s plot is Tammy’s relationship with her conservative mother, Rachel Grover (Cherry Jones). The film suggests that Tammy’s penchant for intense religious expression began in childhood, primarily as an act of defiance and attention-seeking. When the rest of their church seemed taken with Tammy because of her antics, Rachel was never quite convinced. Even into Tammy’s early adulthood, as a student at a Bible college, where she first meets the charismatic Jim Bakker, Rachel remained skeptical of her daughter’s commitment to faith. At key moments in the narrative, Rachel comes breaking in as the lone voice of reason, suggesting to Tammy that Scripture was never meant to enrich its teachers in any material sense. Rachel’s words go unheeded for most of the story, though there is a moment near the film’s end, after the PTL empire falls and Rachel’s passing, that suggests Tammy may have had some kind of epiphany.

The connection between childhood trauma and religious expression is one of the film’s more astute observations. One of my closest mentors and friends is fond of saying, “We don’t pull our psychology into our theology enough,” and after years of therapy (both professional and informal), I’m inclined to agree with her. When people ask me why, of all things, I chose to attend Bible college and then seminary, I tell them only half-jokingly that it was out of rebellion. Self-awareness, I’ve learned the hard way, goes a long way in life, and more so in matters of faith. This is one such lesson that Tammy never seems to learn. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely fair. If she learns it, then it’s a lesson only learned far, far too late.

One cannot escape the feeling when watching this film that Tammy is hopelessly naïve, at best. The very traits that make her endearing — likeable, even — upon first glance, are actually symptoms of a much larger deficiency of character. The moment these traits are excavated, they reveal a hollow cavity into which Jim Bakker can pour his off-kilter rhetoric of financial success through “faithful” action. Did Tammy Faye really fall in love with Jim Bakker, or was she simply infatuated with the idea of pairing with someone who bucked the stuffy and established religious system (someone whom she knew would rile up her mother’s ire) with promises of wealth and prosperity gleaned from Scripture? The characterization of Tammy Faye presented in the film would find her insisting on the former — the narrative itself, the way its threaded together, would subtly hint at the latter.

This is the kind of ambiguity that defines the woman’s legacy, both in this film and in reality. Some viewers will undoubtedly find the film’s lack of a definitive position on the topic something of a moral failure and suggest that the movie, as a result, puts Tammy Faye on a pedestal — and they would be wrong. Smartly, the film neither praises nor condemns. When Tammy speaks out on behalf of practicing homosexuals, there are two very valid readings of her motivations. It could be that she genuinely cares for them, just as easily at it could be that she simply likes to throw fuel on a fire. Does she interview a homosexual man because she wants to give him a platform and a voice, or does she do it to get under Falwell’s skin and to take a jab at Jim? The truth — as it so often is in reality — probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, in a mixture of flurrying emotions and impetuses.

The person who seems most confused by it is Tammy herself, caught in a perpetual hell of having her supposed God-ordained fantasy constantly threatened with shattering against cold, hard truth. Jim might be the slippery schemer, but to say that Tammy was completely ignorant and innocent and existed only to be taken advantage of is completely reductionist. Surely, we think, the woman cannot be this stupid as she asks Jim if they are being financially responsible, and he completely avoids the question — yet she remains in bed pampering herself and applying endless amounts of make-up because the truth is just too difficult to face when a life has been built on half-truths and self-delusions.

A Modern Tragedy. The story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is something of a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, full of self-sabotage and rich paradox. At the end of the day, these are two people undone by their own fantasies. The whole affair calls to mind the dark irony found in any number of Psalms, such as Psalm 10, wherein the psalmist cries out to the Lord demanding that the arrogant wicked who pursue the poor are caught in their own schemes (Ps. 10:2). The opening and closing moments of the film suggest that Tammy Faye’s tragic fate was written in stone from the time she was a child desperate for acceptance in that holy roller service in Minnesota, where she learned to play the game and find the spotlight.

But the real tragedy lies in the realization that the schemes and scam techniques that launched the Bakkers into the stratosphere remain alive and well today. Tammy Faye had her make-up and batting eyelashes; Joel Osteen has his teeth and a million-dollar smile.6 The promise of wealth and success is as alluring today as it’s ever been, and with the stamp of approval from the Almighty upon those desires run amuck in a culture consumed by consumerism and excess, it’s little wonder people still flock to worship at the altar of the cool and blingy J. C. But somewhere along the dimly lit borders of those glittering kingdoms, the words of a sufferer must bleed in from time to time, asking what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (Mark 8:36)?

When I encounter people in the midst of the tragedy (their number is quite startling), the conversation usually works its way around to Job, the man who lost everything, only to have it all returned to him. “See,” it has been said to me, “Job got everything back in the end. He prospered.” Yet I cannot help but find their conclusions as superficial as Tammy Faye’s mascara. Yes, Job receives back his fortunes, everything he had lost, except for one thing — well, ten things, actually. Job has ten new children; the previous ones remain dead. The ease with which this wrinkle is glossed over and smoothed out has always struck me as profound, as even with his newfound wealth, Job still had to be comforted for all the troubles he endured (Job 42:11). And what parent would not throw it all away for another moment with the children that are gone?

Can anyone look at Tammy Faye and say, with certainty, whether the woman truly believed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ as the basis of her right standing with the Father? No, and to that end, The Eyes of Tammy Faye does not even attempt to offer comment. But she was sincere in her delusion, that much comes through in the film, and pathetic in the truest literary sense of the word. I believe that Jesus Christ must have felt deeply for her, as he feels deeply for those who, like Tammy, remain ensnared by the fixed illusion that God has only ever intended the faithful to prosper materialistically. —Cole Burgett

Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.

NOTES

  1. John Wigger, “Underneath All the Makeup, Who Was the Real Tammy Faye?,” The Conversation, September 16, 2021, https://theconversation.com/underneath-all-the-makeup-who-was-the-real-tammy-faye-167023.
  2. Bob Hunter, “Christianity Still in Crisis?,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 30, no. 3 (2007), https://www.equip.org/article/christianity-still-in-crisis/. See also Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis—21st Century (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
  3. Ryan Di Corpo, “Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain Are ‘The Ken and Barbie of Televangelism’ in ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye,’” America: The Jesuit Review, September 17, 2021, https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2021/09/17/jim-tammy-faye-bakker-chastain-garfield-241461.
  4. Mike Cosper, “See What Radiohead Sees,” The Gospel Coalition, March 27, 2011, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/see-what-radiohead-sees/.
  5. Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees,” The Bends, track 2, produced by John Leckie, written by Ed O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke, and Philip Selway (UK: Parlophone, 1995).
  6. Hank Hanegraaff, “Osteenification and What It Portends,” Christian Research Institute, August 26, 2015, https://www.equip.org/article/osteenification-and-what-it-portends/.
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