Film and drama Opinion

Cashing in on Christ — The Eyes of Tammy Faye

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Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain as Jim and Tammy Bakker (Screenshot via YouTube)

With church scandals still making headlines, a new film depicting the life of Tammy Faye Bakker feels sadly relevant, writes digital editor Dan Jensen.

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is a new film exploring the life of the late Tammy Faye Messner, former wife of controversial televangelist, Jim Bakker. During the ‘80s, Bakker had criminal charges brought against him after it was discovered that he had embezzled funds and engaged in sexual misconduct, drawing heavy criticism against televangelism.

The film focuses on the life of Tammy Faye, who defied fundamental Christians and openly declared support for the LGBTI+ community. During the rise of the AIDS epidemic, she showed sympathy towards patients suffering from the disease, an opinion that outraged Christians and conservatives. She also openly disagreed with the politicisation of religion, clashing with senior figures within the church.

From a young age, Tammy was a performer with a huge heart who only wanted to make people happy. Even during the worst times shared with her husband, when it was being alleged that he was stealing money donated to their televised PTL Network, she stood by him and defended him.

Jessica Chastain plays the role of Tammy with such perfection, the actress is no longer present and all we’re seeing is Tammy. Through some Oscar-worthy acting and some of the best make-up work seen in recent years, Chastain delivers a career-defining performance. Andrew Garfield complements her in the role of Jim Bakker, also giving a great performance, but even an actor of his calibre can’t compete with Chastain's magnetism.

The film also features the great Vincent D’Onofrio as Pastor Jerry Falwell, an ultra-conservative who often clashed heads with Tammy over her defiance. Sadly, D’Onofrio isn’t given a lot of screen time, but his role is an important one nonetheless.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye begins with her as a small girl and shows the way her family’s Christian beliefs shaped her life, but also takes a jab at extreme Christian fundamentalism. In a scene where Tammy is “touched by God” while at a church sermon, she convulses and speaks gibberish, much to the glee of her fellow churchgoers. But the way the moment is depicted implies that it was all an act to make Tammy’s fellow Christians accept her into their fold, while those around her blindly accept that it's all God's work.

This is one of the film’s strengths — the way it not only tells the story of Tammy’s life but gives the director, Michael Showalter, an outlet to criticise the way Christianity has become a business, with religions boasting tax exemption and taking money from blind devotees. In the film, Tammy’s mother is frequently concerned for her daughter and the way her naivety is being manipulated by the church. It’s a fitting commentary being that churches are still criticised today for the same reasons.

The film does a reasonable job in showing how the PTL Network used money donated by Christians to build lavish properties, a theme park and fund the opulent lifestyles of the Bakkers. However, The Eyes of Tammy Faye does suffer from the same flaw that a lot of biopics tend to do, in that it lacks a lot of real dramatic conflict or depth to elevate it from being just a play-by-play of certain parts of Tammy’s life.

The subject matter is most definitely interesting, but it skirts around some of the more compelling chapters and controversies in the Bakkers’ life. For instance, the sex scandal between Jim Bakker and church secretary/model Jessica Hahn, the catalyst in bringing down the PTL Network, is only mentioned and never really given the focus it deserves. With church misconduct still making headlines today, the film could have delved into some of the more scandalous aspects of the Bakkers’ life a bit deeper.

While it lacks some teeth, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is still an entertaining look at a public figure that stood up to conformity and played by her own rules. If anything, it is most definitely worth seeing for Chastain’s performance alone, which may well see her hold an Academy statue next month.

★★★☆☆

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now showing in cinemas across the country.

You can follow digital editor Dan Jensen on Twitter @danjensenmovies or check out his YouTube channel, Movie Talk with Dan Jensen.

Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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