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  • Writer's pictureeclectic Stefan

The Eyes of Tammy Faye:"Can we talk about Satan later?"

If we believe the saying that the eyes are a window to the soul, then Tammy Faye Bakker’s soul is covered in black mascara and dominated by arching eyebrows. Her cosmetic veneer covers Tammy Faye’s eyes, lips, nose, eyebrows and cheeks. The cosmetics build a foundation to support and provide a barrier for her emotions, her fears, and her self-perceived inadequacy. Her eyes do not look outwardly at the world but give us a view into her inner guiding force. Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) is also a performer and the saturated make-up defines her as a person and a performer. Her permanently tattooed eyebrows and outlined lips are her self-proclaimed trademark.

Jim & Tammy Bakker

Tammy Faye and her husband Jim Bakker were real life American televangelists, who, through pledges from their multitude of viewers, amassed a fortune and built the PTL (Praise The Lord) Satellite Network, one of the largest evangelical televised networks that broadcast to countries around the world 24 hours a day. It’s also a story of how their empire collapsed under its own pride and vanity with substantial help from their misappropriation of funds from their PTL Network for their personal benefit. Knowing about the real life counterparts on which the movie is based adds an additional understanding to the movie but isn’t essential to understand the person behind the eyes of actor Jessica Chastain’s characterisation of Tammy Faye. Remember, this is not a documentary but a character study of a flawed human being.

It’s important to note that the film is titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, not Tammy Faye Bakker. This is Tammy Faye’s story, her life, and her performance. And her life is a performance. From the beginning, Tammy Faye, the daughter of a divorced woman, was prevented from entering the church to which her mother, Rachel Grover (Cherry Jones) belonged because of her sinful divorce, despite Tammy desperately wanting to join the congregation. Little Tammy Faye, the child, ingratiated herself into the congregation by an inspired and contrived performance that the minister couldn’t refuse. Her performances continued throughout her life, all in the name of faith and inspiration.

Don’t judge Tammy Faye by her surface appearance. She remained throughout her life the child who was shunned because she was the daughter of a divorced woman. Everything she is and becomes exists within Little Tammy Faye. The film is structured in a way that shows Tammy Faye across the ages and through the decades. Her method to restore her position as part of her parent’s church and her identity and individuality is indicative of the acting that camouflages her persona throughout her relationship with Jim Bakker and the televangelical businesses they create.

One senses a true faith in her belief in her God but that sense is overridden by the stronger belief that divine intervention will provide an opulent lifestyle and that lifestyle, in turn, will be justified because it is a divine blessing that provides for and lifts them from their poverty. They build their own heaven on Earth through their implorations to get congregation members to contribute funds so those believers, too, will have a way to build a highway to heaven. Unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, whose rewards are immediate and earthly, the subscribers’ promised life will have to wait until they enter the other-worldly domain promised by the Bakkers. Behind the facade, Tammy Faye has a genuine faith based on the belief that all people should be loved. That view exposes her to the vindictive anti-gay, misogynistic values espoused by power-broker pastors such as Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), Pat Robinson (Gabriel Olds) and Jimmy Swaggart (Jay Huguley).

Tammy’s appearance provides a shield to strengthen her resolve and enable her to be forthright and positive in building the PTL Network with Jim Bakker, including convincing investors to build bible-themed amusement parks. Indeed, the Bakker’s version of The Promised Land includes roller coasters, water slides and fun fairs.

Away from the lights of the television studio and her exuberant, confident and fervent performances singing to her captivated audiences, Tammy Faye subjugates herself to others, especially Jim Bakker. Even when she shows her strength and dominance as a woman, she collapses and succumbs to being a victim to Jim’s tirades and demeaning comments. Even when their private lives and sexual improprieties causes their relationship to disintegrate, it is Jim who invokes the upper hand, asks for forgiveness for himself while promptly condemning Tammy Faye and demanding she repents her sins in public, on-air to the congregation of the PTL ministry, while he sits by her side displaying a self-satisfied manner.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a close look at the person who is Tammy Faye. Before you strip away the makeup, mascara, foundation, and lipstick, it is easy to simply discard her as a caricature of herself. As she says herself in a sincere and toned down voice about her tattooed lips, “This is who I am”. Chastain brings Tammy Faye to life and is the focus of the film as is appropriate for a film titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Tammy Faye is a force on her own. Whenever she is asked about the questionable factors around the Bakker’s evangelical ministry, including questions from her mother, Tammy Faye immediately redirects the traffic to a better, safer destination.

The characters in Tammy Faye’s peripheral vision include the zealous, scheming evangelical pastors—all powerful men with political and social influence that reaches to President Ronald Reagan in The White House and Colonel Sanders, yes, he of KFC Chicken fame—who are as determined to build a successful business model as they are to preach their moral values. Their work is built on a model of fundraising that results in their luxuriant, crass, and indulgent private lifestyles. Corruption is at their hearts as they preach God’s loves. They speak anti-gay proclamations and display misogynistic views.

Tammy Faye and her mother, Rachel

Her mother, Rachel, is a reverent and devout woman, who manages to be there for her daughter. Her father, Fred, is always at the periphery until near the film’s end when he makes a frank and honest revelation. There are plenty of players in this tale but everyone else is a sideshow to Tammy Faye and the strength of Jessica Chastain’s riveting enactment of the child within the woman who was Tammy Faye. When it all comes down to it, it’s about Tammy Faye. It is a superb study of strength and frailty, recovery and despondency, belief and failure. Mostly, whenever monumental obstacles obstruct her path, it’s her determination to maintain her composure and move towards the next phase of her life. It’s Little Tammy Faye that comes to the fore.

We sense that the adult Tammy Faye, like the little girl who was blocked from attending church, is always an outsider, whether in personal relationships or business ventures. And there is always the need to be loved, by her congregation, telemarketers at the evangelical ministry, her husband, her parents, her opponents, her detractors and that she is always held back by the enormous barrier she builds to protect herself.

Rather than looking at Tammy Faye Bakker through your eyes, you need to see past her exterior. It would be easy to dismiss the Bakkers as charlatans and exploiters of the poor for their own luxury. Jim justifies his riches as a sign of God’s care and love for him. He’s a businessman who exploits his parishioners, his wife, and other churches for his own profit while spouting biblical quotes. As does Tammy. To belittle her by looking at her heavy make-up and glitzy clothes is to fall into the trap of judging her and anyone else by external appearances only. Jessica Chastain has given us an insight into the inner turmoil and contradictions that marked Tammy Faye’s position in life. You may not like the religious zeal, confected or genuine; the fraudulent financial dealings; the exploitation of the congregation; or their apparently corrupt moral codes, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye, nonetheless, explores something meaningful beyond the eyes, the mascara, and the tattooed lips.

Official Trailer The Eyes of Tammy Faye


The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Currently in cinema release in selected cinemas (January/February 2022).

Check you local cinemas for availability & session times.

Photo stills, movie poster & official trailer © Searchlight Pictures

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