“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” directed by Michael Showalter ’92, had its Providence premiere at the Avon Cinema this past week. The movie follows the spectacular rise and fall of the televangelist couple Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Showalter constructs a careful portrait of the complicated God-loving duo, who funneled charitable donations from their large religious following to fund their indulgent lifestyle.
The Bakkers were the most salacious of the many televangelists who entered the religious television market in the 60s and 70s. Showalter depicts the Bakkers as livelier than their “Baptist” — a negative connotation in the film — predecessors in the televangelist sphere. Faye, with her sense of humor and comical voice, was especially bubbly. Not only did the Bakkers want to make Christianity exciting, they wanted to communicate its possibilities. “God does not want us to be poor,” Bakker says in a sermon he delivers for a college class early in the film. Poor the Bakkers were not.
By the mid-70s, the Bakkers had constructed a televangelist empire with the PTL Television Network. There was the PTL channel, the PTL satellite and even the PTL theme park. The network was estimated to make over $1 million a week in viewer contributions alone — “the phones are ringing, praise Jesus,” Faye would often exclaim. And, in the mid-80s, viewership was estimated to be at just under six million in the U.S.
It is at this pinnacle in PTL’s viewership that the movie begins to take off. Bakker grows irritable. Faye relieves stress by taking copious amounts of Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug. Her mother scorns her extravagant lifestyle. Reporters begin to look into the family’s finances.
Faye and Bakker work together to destroy each other, though Chastain’s performance is more convincing than her counterpart’s. Garfield often applies “televangelist” too literally to every scenario; in his first meeting with Faye’s parents, he begins to sermonize upon sitting at the table. Bakker had to have some motivation for his avid fraudulence — he must have believed at some point that he was doing God’s work. That self-delusion isn’t evident in Garfield’s character, and he’s detestable from the beginning. Chastain, though, expertly walks the line between villain and victim. For every bad thing Tammy Faye does, Chastain provides just enough room for some pity.
While the final unraveling of the couple’s empire is enthralling, it comes suddenly. The plot could have dwelled more on this biblical comeuppance than on the early days of the Bakkers’ relationship which were, frankly, boringly virtuous. Instead, we move from the Bakkers trying to rekindle their love one day to the FBI knocking on their mansion’s door the next. Quickly, the couple tries to reconcile with the public, including with a deranged “Nightline” interview. Jim is rushed off to prison for mail fraud, and Faye is left trying to pitch her puppet show ideas to Hollywood executives. Chastain’s performance here is as outstanding as Faye is pathetic.
The film’s title helps to focus Chastain’s performance. Tammy Faye rarely looks up in the movie. She doesn’t sermonize in the dramatic way of her husband, she doesn’t pray in a conventional church, she doesn’t look to the heavens for redemption. Her gaze is always ahead of her: into the camera, the congregation, her husband. She’s spiritual, yes, but not in the aspirational, goal-driven way of Jim Bakker, nor in the gloomy, fiery-pits-of-hell style that “Baptists” typically employ. She’s instead tethered to what’s ahead of her, more devoted to living people — AIDS victims, disabled children, her own kids — than the afterlife.
Faye’s religion is her marriage. The commitment to love, and to being loved, is what she prays for: “God told me you can’t leave me at home alone,” Tammy sobs. Jim is the other person necessary for this commitment, but his actual character is less important than the marriage vow he made to Tammy. To be seen, to be accepted entirely, is the spiritual journey most central to the film and its protagonist. That Tammy only files for divorce three years into Jim’s eight-year sentence isn’t surprising — they can no longer see each other.
The film ends with a close-up of Chastain’s visage after her fall from grace. She’s cloaked in permanent, tattooed makeup, heavily wigged, eyebrows arching up toward the temples, prosthetic fillers transmogrifying the beauty’s face into a cartoonish Betty Boop. Chastain often communicates Tammy’s frustration when she looks in the mirror, carefully and despondently correcting her makeup on a face she no longer recognizes. At this point, Tammy has lost everything: her church, her money, her career. She’s lost her husband, her marriage and thus her religion.
In the final scene, she returns to the stage once more for a Christmas concert at Oral Roberts University. She’s gained weight, she’s nervous about what people will say about her scandal and she hasn’t performed in years. She begins hesitantly. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she sings. Eventually, the skeptical crowd begins to sing along: “Glory, glory hallelujah,” they respond. Her eyes are full and wide; she is seen again.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” will remain at the Avon until Thursday, Oct. 7.