MOVIE REVIEW: THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is a loving elegy to a mass media icon of the 80s.


Director Michael Showalter and actress Jessica Chastain present a loving portrait of one of the most vilified figures in reality television and televangelism in Tammy Faye Bakker that seeks to humanize the figure beneath the makeup.

When one thinks of Tammy Faye Bakker, it is impossible to separate her from the disgraced figures of 1980s televangelism like her husband Jim and other figures like Jimmy Swaggart who popularized the disgusting notion of seed ministry that still anchors most televangelism to this day. The idea is that donations from the poor will plant a seed and that God will reward that seed gift with monetary and worldly prosperity if one truly believes and is worthy of the gift. The Bakkers’ televised ministry PTL was also an early look at what reality television would become with round-the-clock coverage of its anchors and lead personalities and their interests as they hawked their message in exchange for donations.

It is that omnipresence and the Bakkers’ crass greed, including funneling donations to try and build their Christian theme park Heritage USA, that made the idea of a biopic about Tammy Faye Bakker such an odd idea in this writer’s opinion. We as the viewing public know that Bakker became something of a reality TV personality, appearing on VH1’s The Surreal Life after her husband Jim went to prison for his financial mishandling of their ministry. A biopic on a character like Tammy Faye seems like it would be difficult. But as films like I. Tonya have shown, it is possible to mine the lives of these eccentric personalities and find a hidden depth that shows humanity that might be lost at first glance.

Such is the case with Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a biography that feels something like the lovechild of I, Tonya and Bombshell; both films which tackle unpopular, but complex, women like Tonya Harding and Megyn Kelly, and succeed in showing the audience that there is a real tension in succeeding when you come from a difficult background and end up in an industry where you are the outsider.

We meet Tammy Faye as a child, a product of a prior marriage by her mother (played by Cherry Jones who also anchors the film tremendously). Tammy yearns for a connection with God, having felt forsaken by her family and church as a young child until she is touched by the spirit and speaks in tongues which brings her acceptance. The idea that the attention of others equals love sticks in Tammy’s mind, all the way to Bible college, where she meets young theology student Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) to whom she is instantly drawn. Their physical chemistry leads to their marriage, which results in their being expelled. But the two have hustle and start a ministry aimed at children, with Tammy’s love of puppets creating a natural outreach towards children. Eventually, the two end up working for Pat Robertson, but Jim wants more and eventually, he meets up with Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’onofrio) to whom he also feigns allegiance to try and become something more. But Tammy Faye’s belief in Jim gets him to break away and form his own televised ministry, PTL, which becomes one of the first mega televangelism outreaches and a precursor to reality television.

The rise of Tammy in this film only works because of Chastain’s bravura performance as Tammy. With her Minnesota inflections in her voice, she gives Tammy life beneath the prosthetic makeup which transforms her physically into Bakker. This is one of the best makeup and performance combos since Charlize Theron’s turn as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell. Showalter’s structure and blending of archival footage with new footage make the film seem very immersive and of its time, which helps in creating this character and world. Garfield feels a bit one-note as Jim Bakker, as does D’Onofrio. But ultimately this is Chastain’s vehicle to shine and the blend of dark humor and visuals with a grounded performance by Chastain really makes this a unique film, with a John Waters/Serial Mom-like flavor at times.

Ultimately, this is a performance-driven film. How you feel about it, depends on how much Chastain sucks you into this world. But, much like Bohemian Rhapsody, there isn’t a lot of depth to the film, minus the difficulty in the Bakkers’ marriage and their downfall due to financial mismanagement, both of which are presented as subtextual subplots. Issues in their marriage, such as Jim’s possible closeted homosexuality, are implied rather than explored, which makes it hard to empathize with Tammy Faye at times, who seems often to be clueless of everything but her spending. While that might work for a side character like Tara Reid’s Mrs. Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, here, it needs more depth to help realize the world and message of the film.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a promising film with some great performances, in particular by Jessica Chastain. But the film is light on plot and heavy on artifice. It makes for something of a shallow experience and leaves you wanting more than the film offers. There’s a lot to mine here, but it seems like Showalter isn’t interested in the juicy parts, but in the mundane of buying expensive clothes and the drama in of who wins at the game of thrones in televangelism.