Rightwing Film Geek

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (Michael Showalter, USA, 2021, 8)

What if conmen believe their con? It’s not exactly that we come to sympathize with them, but they definitely become harder to hate and the other things about them come to the forefront, including “how did they come to believe their con?”

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE manages the remarkable feat of portraying someone known as a caricature without engaging in it itself. Partially it is physical — the makeup changes over time and Jessica Chastain isn’t that great a resemblance (especially facially) so you see a performance not an imitation. But mostly it’s because Tammy Faye was many things, but not a phony like many of us assumed at the time when we heard about (first detail to immediately come to mind) the air-conditioned doghouses. She and husband Jim were pentecostalists filled with enthousiasmos, not fundamentalists filled with the scriptures. “All is grace” ends Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and this film (accurately from all accounts) portrays one way to take that — the prosperity gospel (heresy).

From the very beginning of their courtship and ministry, the Bakkers saw God’s giving hand in everything with a naive good-heartedness, and an effervescence. The film portrays a famous interview with Ted Koppel on “Nightline” in which they frankly admit they had no idea how much money they made and never really thought to ask. It sounded ridiculous (and the film leaves out Koppel’s sick rebuttal), but … this film makes it believable.

Tammy Faye in particular didn’t have the cynicism, guile or calculation that conmen need. She was so trusting and so gifting a person that it never occurred to her to ask whether it was a good use of money to give her mother a fur; it kept the woman warm. This naivete in Tammy Faye, whose POV the film takes, also means that some of the biopic shapelessness and the murkiness of the fraud charges / court procedurals in the story — criticisms one could justifiably make — actually play exactly right. There is only the “and then” experience.

The ending clinched it for me on these grounds. The film opens with Tammy Faye she needed to wear her makeup because that’s her role — seemingly the opposite of what I just said about not being a phony. But the last scene is her singing on a concert stage, starting her comeback (“I hate that word, it’s ‘return’!”) to being the celebrity she has made herself into. Or at least thinks she has. As an icon of a most American of religions, singing the most of American of songs, as the flag unfurls. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Tammy Faye Bakker. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.

This secular film is also enjoyable, for some of us anyway, in its portrayal of how she and Jim were so different from the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell (a pet hobby-horse of mine is how ignorant much press coverage is of the subtleties and details of what I might as well call “conservative” religion). And, helped by history here, the fact that Falwell is both unsympathetic and the one who punishes the Bakkers’ fraud.

However, I have to say that a great film would have has a less-caricatured Falwell (I flat out didn’t buy the late line from the mother) and maybe more about how Tammy Faye became a gay icon post-fall (it’s a bit of a cheat to put topic-H into two scenes pre-fall, even if those conversations actually took place as portrayed). And does it need to be said that a great biopic film would have no IRL footage of its subject(s) over the credits.

September 24, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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