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The Eyes of Tammy Faye captures the moment the GOP got in bed with the Christian right

Tammy Faye Bakker’s complicated legacy gets another look in a new movie starring Jessica Chastain.

Jessica Chastain, in silk bed robes and blonde hair, in bed in the film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Searchlight Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is the latest in a burgeoning cultural project: the ongoing attempt to reexamine and reclaim the legacies of women who were wronged in recent history. Monica Lewinsky. Britney Spears. Marcia Clark. Podcasts (like Slow Burn and You’re Wrong About), documentaries (Framing Britney Spears), and based-on-a-true-story TV dramas reframe the stories that sensation-seeking media and late-night comedians pitched to the American public as a clown show, a train wreck, a lady who’s in trouble and worthy only of our gawking.

In this way, Tammy Faye Messner, formerly Tammy Faye Bakker, was ahead of her time. In 2000, she was the subject of a documentary, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, that aimed to reintroduce audiences to a woman they’d previously encountered as either a scandal or a punchline. (Technically, the new film is a lightly fictionalized adaptation of the older documentary.) It’s a weird, campy, wonderful little film. Sock puppets introduce various sections of the story; RuPaul narrates.

Sundance Film Festival Archives by Fred Hayes
Tammy Faye Messner with a poster for The Eyes of Tammy Faye at Sundance in 2000.
Fred Hayes/WireImage

At the documentary’s center is Tammy Faye herself, one-half of an infamous televangelist couple who saw their reputations and empire fall after Faye’s then-husband, Jim Bakker, was convicted of mail and wire fraud. Allegations of improper financial dealings had dogged the Bakkers for years, but they came to a head in 1987 when allegations that Jim raped a young woman named Jessica Hahn and then used ministry funds to pay for her silence became public.

The allegations sent shock waves through not just the conservative Christian community but also the country at large. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the pair had been at the head of the PTL Network, a massively popular TV network that aired, among other programming, the Bakkers’ own daily variety shows. PTL stood for both “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love,” though some joked it meant “pass the loot”: Its broadcasts were friendly and inspiring, filled with music and celebration and encouragement directed toward at-home viewers. They were also filled with pleas for donations from their “partners,” Jim’s affectionate but calculated term for viewers who gave money. For a long time, that formula bore fruit; the Bakkers’ constant telethons raised many millions of dollars and garnered an audience of 20 million viewers.

The Bakkers also leveraged their PTL platform to launch many other projects, the most famous of which may be Heritage USA, a kind of Christian Disneyland that in the ’80s was one of America’s most popular vacation destinations. The park featured, among other things, a 12-acre waterpark and a recreation of the Upper Room (where Jesus had his last supper before his crucifixion). At the time, the park was 10 times larger than California’s Disneyland and 20 times larger than Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, according to Religion & Politics. The Bakkers envisioned it as a pilgrimage site.

When the allegations became public in 1987, fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell took over the Bakkers’ empire after Jim stepped down. Falwell was the founder of both the Moral Majority (with Pat Robertson) and Liberty University, and an architect of the then-new alliance between conservative Christians and the Republican Party. At the time, Falwell broadcasted his own sermons via the Liberty Broadcasting Network, which he claimed reached about 3 million people — a paltry number compared to PTL’s 20 million. It seems he saw an opportunity and offered to help Jim by taking over PTL briefly in March 1987.

The Bakkers always maintained that they believed Falwell’s control of PTL was temporary, but within a month, Falwell had barred Jim from returning as the organization’s head. He declared that the Bakkers’ lavish lifestyle and other illicit behavior (including allegations that Jim had made sexual advances toward men) made the couple unfit to return, and called Jim “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” Soon, the Bakkers were a joke, with Tammy Faye’s makeup, campy performances, penchant for excess, and supposed airheadedness often taking the brunt of it.

Dana Carvey, right, plays the Church Lady in a 1987 Saturday Night Live sketch with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, played by Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks.
Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

(Falwell passed away in 2007; his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., was the president of Liberty University until the summer of 2020, when he resigned amid scandal.)

By the time the documentary was shot in the late 1990s, Heritage USA had closed permanently and Tammy Faye and Jim’s divorce was in the past, the papers signed while Jim was in prison. Most of the film features Tammy Faye telling her story. She still speaks with hurt about Falwell, and suggests that she didn’t trust him or his views from the start, years before he ousted the Bakkers from PTL. Yet she also speaks with a buoyancy and guileless affect that’s surprising for a woman who’s both in love with the camera and has really been through the wringer. (Her second husband, Roe Messner, also went to prison for fraud connected to PTL; as a contractor, he was the developer of Heritage USA.)

Her pep and vigor aren’t surprising if you’ve watched Tammy Faye do her thing on TV or listened to her many inspirational, upbeat Christian albums. The descriptor “live wire” seemed to have been invented just for her. In the early 1960s, when she and Jim were newlyweds, Tammy Faye sang and mounted puppet shows at the churches the couple traveled to as young preachers in the Assemblies of God. When they started working in television in 1966, taking jobs at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (where Jim would launch The 700 Club, which Robertson later took over after ousting the pair) she brought her effervescence and joy with her. She also brought her signature over-the-top eye makeup: spidery mascara, thick black liner, gleaming shadow.

That makeup, along with her love of flamboyant clothing and gaudy decor, would become a convenient butt of many late-night comedy jokes when the Bakkers fell from grace. In the 2000 documentary, however, more than a decade has passed since the PTL scandals, and Tammy Faye is working her way back to public prominence.

She’d guest-starred on The Drew Carrey Show in the late 1990s and found an unlikely new life as a gay icon, beloved for her support of the LGBTQ community. After she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996, her illness became the basis for several interviews on Larry King Live. A few years after the documentary, she would appear on the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life. By the time she died in 2007, Tammy Faye had become a star again, one more beloved than her ex-husband.

(Jim Bakker is still alive and married to televangelist Lori Beth Graham; he also has a TV show. Most recently, he’s been hawking apocalypse preparedness kits, fake Covid-19 cures, and Donald Trump to his viewers. It’s gotten pretty dark.)

A man and a woman in ‘80s garb, talking straight into a TV camera.
Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Searchlight Pictures

When it first came out, some reviewers dinged the documentary — which has since become a cult favorite — for being entirely one-sided, completely slanted in favor of its eponymous subject. But that approach was clearly on purpose. The goal wasn’t to offer a skewed version of events but to let a fascinating woman simply talk, leaving any interrogation of the veracity of her account for another day. There’s an aspect of having fun at her expense; she is larger than life, a woman who adores the camera and, to some extent, seems to feel most at home when she knows people are watching her. (Also, I mean: sock puppets.)

Yet it’s not a mean film. Tammy Faye is a bit of a joke, but she’s in on the joke too.

With all that history in mind, what’s the value in a new, more scripted version of The Eyes of Tammy Faye? Why retell the story again? Her cultural status has already shifted from punching bag to campy but beloved icon, and this film doesn’t shed much additional light on its central figure. It’s an engaging enough introduction to the Bakkers, the fraud scandal, and the milieu of 1980s televangelism. But aside from spotlighting Tammy Faye’s support of LGBTQ people even in the face of vocal opposition from Falwell, there’s not a lot to surprise anyone with a passing understanding of the story.

Directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by Abe Sylvia, The Eyes of Tammy Faye will at least reach a wider audience than the quirky, low-budget documentary could have managed, and Chastain’s performance brings affectionate warmth to a woman who did, in the end, always seem to be performing. (Anyone looking for more should listen to this excellent episode of the You’re Wrong About podcast centered on Tammy Faye and Jessica Hahn, the young woman who accused Jim Bakker of rape and whom he allegedly used PTL funds to silence.)

Still, this exceptionally well-cast version of Tammy Faye’s story does manage to tap into a cultural moment with reverberations we continue to feel today.

Chastain, who optioned the feature rights to the documentary and serves as the film’s producer, plays Tammy Faye from a round-cheeked, bright-eyed Bible college student to a 50-something woman tentatively working her way back into the limelight. Andrew Garfield is a spot-on Jim Bakker, sporting the same smile (I’ve always thought Jim’s grin resembled the Grinch) and slightly desperate look in his eyes. Vincent D’Onofrio is the film’s villain: Falwell.

In centering Tammy Faye’s version of events, the documentary sidestepped a looming shadow over the whole matter: the battle taking place at the time over conservative American Christianity’s link to the Republican Party. Tammy Faye doesn’t seem to have given the matter, or her role in it, much thought. In her telling, Jerry Falwell appears — and not inaccurately so — mainly as the man Jim trusted to rescue PTL when accusations of fraud hit the media.

That’s not what Falwell is primarily remembered for, though. In American history, he goes down as one of the men instrumental in handing Ronald Reagan the presidency in 1980 by delivering conservative Christians, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists, as stalwart party members. Prior to that time, right-leaning Christians were not counted upon as lockstep GOP voters; after it, they grew to become the party’s most reliable base.

Jerry Falwell Showing Card at Press Conference
Jerry Falwell denounces Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at a press conference in 1987.
NBC News Archives via Getty Images

Many Christians’ support of Reagan was all the more surprising given that Reagan, who had been a Hollywood actor, was running against Jimmy Carter, a deeply committed, self-described “born again” Christian whose ability to attract evangelical voters during his 1976 presidential campaign was so notable that Newsweek declared 1976 “the year of the evangelical.”

The term “born again” had emerged to describe a certain variety of devout evangelical Christians; first popularized by the Jesus Movement (kind of a hippie Christian movement in the 1960s), it became even more prominent after former Nixon adviser Chuck Colson used the term in his 1975 memoir describing his conversion in prison. Carter was the first presidential candidate to describe himself as “born again.” In 1980, all three presidential candidates used the term to describe their faith.

When Reagan won the presidency over Carter, his victory was, in no small part, thanks to Falwell’s ability to solidify a coalition around the Republican Party and its candidate. The marriage of American evangelicalism and Republican politics occurred at that moment. Christians who became joined at the hip to the GOP often pointed to Democrats’ support for abortion rights, gay rights, and feminism, as well as a desire to support “family values” as the key factors in that union. (Historians have since shown that, at the start, evangelical support of the Republican ticket was even more linked to anti-desegregation efforts than to anti-abortion sentiment.)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye never actually taps into Falwell’s views on segregation at the time. Instead, it’s his vehement (and well-established) “anti-homosexual” views that get the spotlight, as well as the implication that those beliefs may have motivated him to come for the Bakkers’ empire. To the movie’s version of Falwell, gay people are wrecking America and deserve to be struck down, pushed back at every turn.

Falwell’s views stand in stark contrast to Tammy Faye’s, at least in some respects. In 1985, she had the gall to invite an AIDS patient to appear on her show Tammy’s House Party, which aired live on PTL, and interview him compassionately. (The interview is a landmark moment, both in religious TV history and in the film.)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye zooms in on an interesting cultural fault line at the time. On one side are hard-liners like Falwell, determined to fight cultural battles with a cudgel and take no prisoners. Falwell was so set on pulling this off through political power that he told Jim Bakker, who endorsed Reagan for the first time in 1984 and was considering supporting Pat Robertson’s presidential bid in 1988, that they need to “keep the evangelicals in the tent” by delivering the victory to George H.W. Bush.

Jim Bakker sits on his porch while Tammy Faye sings.
Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Searchlight Pictures

On the other side is Tammy Faye, who asks why they can’t just stick to Jesus and loving people and leave politics out of it. She speaks, in that moment, for a lot of evangelicals and other conservative stripes of Christianity at the time. (She and Jim were Pentecostals, and the interplay among Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism is complicated. Many of PTL’s devoted fans — the “partners” lining the Bakkers’ considerable coffers — would certainly have been evangelicals, and in their heyday, the Bakkers lent a new credibility to Pentecostalism.) Until the late 1970s, many evangelical Christians were simply not involved in politics. But in the period The Eyes of Tammy Faye covers, that was changing.

The Bakkers’ programming, despite Jim’s endorsement of Reagan in 1984, was on the whole apolitical, lacking in the kind of “us versus them” rhetoric that marked Falwell’s preaching and defines a great deal of American Christian media today. To be sure, when investigative journalists were reporting on fraud at PTL, the Bakkers responded by suggesting the media was targeting them raising money on the claim. But politics wasn’t a huge part of their programming — certainly not anything like Bakker’s work today.

Yet the TV programming wasn’t all the Bakkers did, and they didn’t have to engage in on-air partisan politics to lay the groundwork for their rise. For one, they preached and lived a prosperity gospel that equates financial success with spiritual growth, fertilizing ground to be planted by those who benefit from people’s dreams of getting rich. And you can get a full grasp of the Bakkers’ worldview when you recall that they built a theme park explicitly intended to link American patriotism and American Christianity. It’s all of a piece — nostalgia, patriotism, Jesus, and a feel-good, money-driven gospel.

Their ministry came at the dawn of an American era in which faith and triumphalist patriotism became increasingly twined together, reliant on a wistful vision of a golden age. That vision was harnessed by political powers that be to solidify a conservative, partisan base.

So what The Eyes of Tammy Faye may do best is illuminate a crucial moment in American history, a fork in the road. It was a time when a network like PTL could become massively popular, when Christian TV and Christian theme parks could draw huge audiences and, perhaps, even see themselves as part of the mainstream rather than a separate entertainment universe outside of “godless Hollywood.” This was a time before God’s Not Dead and “worship protests” and “Jericho Marches.” But even PTL, despite steering clear of explicit politics in its programming, was laying the groundwork for what was to come by placing a particularly jingoistic love of country and of God on the same level, painting a fantasy of America as God’s chosen country.

Tammy Faye’s place in that shift is complicated; whatever her personal feelings about Falwell and his politics, it’s inescapably true that she and Jim were instrumental in pushing the right wing of American Christianity toward its partisan state. The Eyes of Tammy Faye gestures at that shift without spending enough time on it for the audience to really understand what’s happening. Falwell comes off as cartoonish, bad mostly because he hates the “homosexual agenda” and feminism, and small and jealous enough of the Bakkers’ success to tear their empire out from under them. Tammy Faye, as a foil to his macho hellfire-and-brimstone demeanor, is the opposite.

But there’s a moment at the end of the movie that complicates her character just a bit more. Having spent some time in obscurity after PTL’s fall, she receives an invitation to perform at Oral Roberts University, named for the famous televangelist who founded it. With trepidation, she agrees to perform and sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In reality, she’s alone on the stage, but in her mind, she’s backed by a full choir clad in pink robes. A giant American flag unfurls behind her; red and blue balloons rain down from heaven. She thanks God for letting her live in this great country, the United States of America.

The scene links spectacle, faith, and patriotism overtly, serving as a reminder of Tammy Faye’s real, complicated legacy. Yes, she ran against the grain of men like Falwell by embracing LGBTQ people wholeheartedly. She sang with a lightness that belied the tumult that followed her throughout her life. She was beloved by many. If Tammy Faye’s version of Christianity had won out, America might look very different today. But all those truths coexist with a syncretism that conflates love of God with love of country and leads straight to where we find ourselves in 2021. Nobody’s legacy, in the end, is simple.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters September 17.