The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
The single funniest thing I ever read was in a decades-old issue of The Wittenburg Door, a Christian satire magazine. Every year they honored theological luminaries such as Woody Allen and Steve Martin. In this issue, Tammy Faye Bakker was named “Theologian of the Year.” What made me laugh very, very hard was an excerpt from TFB’s bestselling book, Running to the Roar. You’ll have to trust me that her writing about the death of her dog was hysterical. Surprisingly, this passage made me laugh much more than anything from the writers of The Wittenburg Door.
When the article came out (1980), I couldn't have imagined an Oscar-winning movie made about this woman. I never thought Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker would be at the forefront of a series of sex scandals involving prominent TV evangelists. (Envisioning this sort of thing would have been even less possible because I pictured the couple more like cartoon characters than real people with real sexual desires and impulses.)
I also didn’t imagine Jim Bakker being convicted of 24 counts of wire fraud and being sent to prison, but that would have certainly have seemed more feasible. Also, that is what makes it possible for us to feature this film in Movie Churches' Crime Month.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on an independent documentary by Randy Barbato and narrated by RuPaul Charles. Writer Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter made this feature film that seeks to portray the founders of the PTL (Praise the Lord) network as real people rather than caricatures (not always successfully). Jessica Chastain won an Oscar for her portrayal of Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield played Jim.
The film begins with Tammy as a child. She doesn't enter the local Pentecostal Church but instead watches services through a window from the outside. Tammy's mother won't allow Tammy to go to the church services because the girl will remind the congregation that Tammy's mother was divorced from her father and that the mother wasn't allowed back to the church until the congregation realized that she was the only person who could play the piano. Eventually, Tammy disobeys her mother, enters the church, prays to receive salvation through Christ, and demonstrates the presence of the Holy Spirit with ecstatic utterances.
Tammy and Jim meet at North Central Bible College. Jim tells Tammy about his previous dream of being a DJ and his love for rock and roll. Soon they go for a roll in the hay, get married, and are forced to drop out of school. The two go on the road as itinerant ministers, with Jim preaching and Tammy singing and working puppets. They eventually catch the attention of Pat Robertson, who puts them on CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network) where Jim became the first host of The 700 Club. When Jim sees that Pat is financially much better off than he and Tammy, he decides to start his own network, the PTL Sattellite Network -- featuring himself and Tammy.
Over the years, things did not go well. Though they requested donations for specific needs, the funds were siphoned off for their homes (mansions) and the creation of a Christian amusement park that was never actually built. Tammy Faye developed an addiction to prescription drugs. Rumors continued about Jim having homosexual affairs and to quiet that rumor, he had an affair with (or possibly raped) Jessica Hahn, an employee. Tammy Faye had at least one, and possibly a series of affairs.
One of the few ways that the film seems to try to portray Tammy Faye in a positive light is in her outreach to AIDS patients and her expressions of love for those in the gay community. This is in stark contrast to its portrayal of Jerry Falwell who is portrayed as a harsh, vindictive opponent to the “Gay Agenda” and those with the “Gay Cancer.” What is sadly lacking in the portrayal of either side of this debate is any effort to wrestle with the Scriptural elements in this debate.
In the end, Jim goes to prison, and Tammy Faye struggles to carry on after becoming a joke and pariah in much of the Christian and secular worlds. She and Jim divorce; both remarry (although this isn’t clearly shown in the film). Tammy Faye continues to trust Jesus and finds a way back into ministry along with becoming a bit of a gay icon. The film concludes with Tammy Faye singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and crying out, “God bless the United States of America!”
For good and ill, the Bakkers lived a uniquely American story. Tammy Faye died in 2007 and Jim continues to minister in spite of great health challenges. He has expressed sorrow for many of his actions, including preaching the “health and wealth gospel.”
The real Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker with the actors