We have to confess that as Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s exhilarating 2000 film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, is one of our favorite queer documentaries of all time we approached the new film with the same title with such trepidation. Thankfully it turned out to be groundless as although this feature drama written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter is patchy in parts, it has a glorious Oscar-worthy performance by Jessica Chastain that is such a sheer delight.
Tammy Faye Bakker the wife of the evangelist Jim Bakker was a very complicated character. Uneducated having given up Bible College to marry the charismatic Bakker fellow student (Andrew Garfield), she comes over as quite the simpleton at times. She was equally passionate about worshiping God as she was at applying make-up in vast quantities. Chastain’s very sympathetic portrayal is of a highly-spirited woman who although possessed such a profound understanding of the plight of the LGBTQ community and African/Americans seemed to be unable to see all the large-scale fraud that her husband was committing. Or was she really unaware of it all?
Bakker knew that his biggest asset was Tammy and he would drag out to raise funds for both building their mega-church TV network and also later trying to save it from all collapsing when it became apparent that he had stolen/spent too much of the funds.
She would occasionally show her independence by choice of guests on her own TV which one day included a gay Pastor from SF who had AIDS (Randy Havens) This like so many of the incidents in the film happened in real life and would cement Tammy Faye’s status as a Gay Icon. That and the fact she would always insist that God’s love does not discriminate. The irony being that Bakker himself was not adverse to having the odd gay flutter himself .
Interestingly enough although we see Bakker begging for approval from the ultra-right-wing conservatives like Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Pat Roberston (Gabriel Olds) the film chooses not to dwell too much on the political stranglehold that these extreme evangelists would have on the Republican Party.
The only part of reality in Tammy Fayes’ life is her mother (beautifully played by Cherry Jones). She is the one who was never taken in by Bakker’s oozing charm but even her persistent advice to be careful to her daughter is won over in later life when she is gifted a mink coat.
This is by no means a conventional rag to riches tale but it is fascinating to see that although it was Bakker who craved the wealth, it was Tammy Faye who seemed happiest indulging in the luxuries it could bring. Even though most of them were like her, very garish.
Did Showalter and Chastian manage to make her likable? Well, they exposed her vulnerability perfectly and we were always routing in her corner. This Tammy Faye was a fascinating creature with admirable self-determination …. although that deserted her at times and we wanted to like her so much. And at times we were on the verge of falling in love with her.
Showalter ends his story with Bakker convicted of fraud now in jail and Tammy Faye trying to re-invent herself again. Little does she know that in a few year’s time she’ll be back in prison visiting her second husband, but that’s another story.
This may be the third time lucky for Chastain, having been nominated for two Academy Awards before. She can expect to share the stage with Randi Owens Arroyo her make-up artist when they collect their Oscar too.
Labels: 2021, biography, Jessica Chastain, Tammy Faye Bakker