The Eyes of Tammy Faye–A New Perspective

In the biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, we see Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain in her Academy Award winning role) and her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) as pioneers of televangelism,”sermons on the screen”.   

Opening in the 1950’s with two young, fervent small-town Christians believing in the mission of spreading the gospel, Tammy Faye and her soon-to-be-husband become traveling preachers. They gain a following with their appeal both to children and their parents by entertaining through stories and music.  Tammy Faye is pivotal in designing puppet shows and singing songs that are fresh and endearing.

Soon Tammy realizes that they can reach a much broader audience of potential disciples through television.  As she watches first Elvis Presley and then the Beatles capture huge numbers of fans, Tammy recommends television as the medium to preach the gospel.  Little known outside their itinerant routes, Tammy and Jim persuade the much more powerful Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) to include them in his Sunday church sermons. 

Tammy is the one to realize that Falwell is usurping the fame and glory that should be theirs.  Establishing the first Christian-themed broadcasting station,  PTL (“Praise the Lord”),  Tammy Faye and her husband turn their simple, folksy child-puppeteering, singing gospel programs into a money-making TV behemoth in the 80’s and 90’s American living rooms.  Other jealous and covetous preachers follow their example and business model:  Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart.   Fierce and brutal competition is hurled at each other but especially the Faye/Bakker team as the upstarts who challenged the status quo.

Reverend Jerry Falwell, becomes the overall major villain in the film.  His unbridled ambitions and betrayal bring down  Jim Bakker’s empire, exchanging  positions of grifter-preacher in the process.  The overheated antagonism and opposition between Faye/Bakker and the other preachers makes “The Eyes of  Tammy Faye” riveting.  The momentum and dramatic tension are ratched up as we see the business of religion become a lucrative and powerful political force.

The Reagan re-election campaign is one example.  If not for the televangelist support of  Jim Bakker, Reagan felt he would be defeated.  Pat Robertson was hinting at a bid for the presidency so the potential voting blocks for Reagan would be split as some would gravitate towards Robertson. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” suggests that Jim Bakker was pivotal in throwing his support at Reagan, due mostly to Falwell’s heavy-handed persuasion.  Tammy is strongly opposed to religion becoming involved in politics but is not heard.  Unlike her husband who is convinced his word is the same as God’s,  Faye believes no one can be excluded in the name of God.

For those of us who remember Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye when they were in their prime, we see the “gilded age” of televangelism:  Christian-themed amusement parks,  real-estate timeshare partnerships, mission donations to villages on the continent of Africa.  What was behind the curtain will surprise these viewers nonetheless, especially Tammy Faye’s growing resistance to being relegated to the shadows of their church and to her voice  as a business partner, Christian, and singer being ignored or even worse, devalued.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye belongs to Jessica Chastain, who magnificently  nails the personality of  Tammy Faye, as she evolves from naive ingenue to audaciously wealthy and successful religious tycoon, to regaining her footing and adhering to her values deep into middle age.  Her transformation in physical appearance makes her virtually unrecognizable and her singing is emotive, heartbreaking and chilling.  Always outstanding in her performances, this year’s Oscar for Best Actress inarguably belongs to her.  This film leaves the viewer seeing Tammy Faye in a new light and a new perspective.  Highly recommend!

Availability: HBOMax

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