Friday, September 17, 2021


Opening in theaters this weekend:

The Eyes of Tammy Faye--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 bought from her that day is still on my bookshelf; she signed it "God bless you Mark--Love, Tammy Faye."

For those who may not remember: Tammy Faye was a star of evangelical TV in the 60s, '70s and '80s. Growing up poor in International Falls, Minnesota, 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 for years. Tammy Faye divorced him, remarried to 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, particularly for the gay community; sort of an honorary drag queen. 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 the age of 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 and sanctimony. 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-assed, no-nonsense mother, who smells trouble the first time Jim comes into the house. Frederic Lehne makes his presence felt as her more easygoing and affectionate stepfather, and in the smallish role of Jerry Falwell, Vincent D'Onofrio has fun imitating the way the preacher would clamp his lips down on terminal consonants: "JiMM."

Aside from the superb acting and the flawless 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 don't really 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 seem to quite 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 well 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.


  1. Hey Mark,

    So did you meet her?

    As far as this movie and the previous documentary---It must never be forgotten that she absolutely was a willing corrupt partner in destroying thousands of peoples lives. Every time she was on the tube crying for people to send money for false promises, she was aware. Every time she stood next to her husband as he was selling things that did not exist, she was aware. She stole people's money, trust and dreams in the name of God. Please spare me the innocent victim narrative of this person. I'm not saying it's you making the narrative, it's the film's that I find so galling.

    dave g.

  2. I very well remember that back in the day when I mentioned I was going to meet her--I met her; did I tell you that?--it was you who advised me not to be taken in by the fact that she was a charming person; to ask her tough questions. I tried and failed; her answers were evasions, and her charm wore me down. But I think you're right about her; despite her persona she wasn't a dumb woman, and it would be gullible to think that she could really have been unaware of the rank thievery.

  3. So wait, are you saying that you met her?

    It's comforting to hear that I've been consistent on this point through the years.