Jesus loves me, this I know.
Tammy Faye’s story begins with this simple declaration; a statement of faith slow in coming.
Her mother, Rachel, was a deeply pious woman. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Tammy Faye was born to Rachel’s first husband, you see, and their church frowned on the divorce. And while Rachel piano-played her way back into the church’s good graces, no grace was extended to Tam. “They see you,” Rachel says, “all of us is going to be banished.”
But the pull of Jesus is just too strong for Tammy Faye. She lurks outside the church, hearing the charismatic pastor shout about forgiveness and grace and unconditional love. She longs to lift her voice, lift her hands, to belong. “I don’t know what this is that everyone’s getting,” Tammy Faye later prays. “But if it’s real, then please Jesus, give that to me.”
And one Sunday morning, as communion is distributed in the midst of music and dancing and speaking in tongues, Tammy Faye sneaks in, unnoticed, and walks up to the waiting pastor holding a chalice.
“Are you ready to accept the love?” The pastor says.
She is. And when she takes a sip, the girl begins chanting in unfamiliar words and falls to the ground. And even as Rachel demands she stand up, others believe they’ve seen a miracle. “Don’t take her away from us!” one woman pleads.
In fact, Tammy Faye’s love of Jesus eventually carries her all the way to Bible college, where she meets a young firebrand named Jim Bakker. He asks her if she has any secrets. Tam says no.
“I don’t pretend to be something I’m not, because what you see is all you get,” she tells him. “And I love people. I have a genuine love for people. And I hurt when people hurt.”
She turns to him and asks, “Do you have any secrets, Jim?”
“Well, one or two,” he says with a bashful smile.
But he makes no secret of his loves, either: for Jesus. For money. And let’s face it: for Jim, the two go hand in hand. When a college professor reminds Jim that the poor are blessed, Jim counters, “It doesn’t sound very blessed to me.”
Tammy Faye laughs. And in short order, the two marry and go on the road, preaching the Gospel—the prosperity Gospel—as they go. They soon build an empire and live in a style many a petty dictator or drug lord would envy.
Jesus loves me. This Tammy Faye knows. But she loves her clothes and coats and makeup, too. While she might not know it, Tammy Faye and Jim have built their mansion on sand. And it’s bound to be washed away.
For Christians, The Eyes of Tammy Faye perhaps serves as a cautionary tale—a reminder of the Apostle Paul’s words that the love of money is the root of evil (1 Timothy 6:10).
I’m not going to speculate on the morality or motives of the real Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. But the Jim and Tammy Faye we meet in this movie do love their money, and Jim seems all about making more. When Tammy Faye gives birth to their second child, Jim’s thrilled that the announcement “got a real surge in pledges.” While both seem sincere about saving souls, both are distracted by their ever-growing bounty, and their success leads them astray in other ways, too. Jim especially grows ever more hypocritical.
None of that is particularly positive, of course. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye nevertheless suggests that its lead character has a saving grace, too: her unabashed, sincere and even infectious love.
Tammy’s uncritical love comes with some issues, as we’ll read, and even the movie suggests that character trait has its drawbacks. “You follow blindly,” Rachel warns her daughter. “In the end, all you are is blind.” But Tammy’s desire to help others—to show them, as much as she can, the unconditional love of Christ in what she says and does—comes across as sincere. She believes in what they’re doing. She believes that her ministry with Jim is helping countless people and saving countless souls, and she’s probably right.
And when that ministry’s many, many problems are exposed and Tammy Faye becomes a late-night punchline, the woman faces it all with grim determination and a sunny smile. For example, when she hears a clutch of teenagers making fun of her behind her back, she takes a deep breath and walks up to them. “So you can talk about me, that’s all right,” she tells them. “But you gotta shake my hand and say ‘Hi’ first.” That sort of courage is unusual, and Tammy Faye deserves props for having it.
You could say that every minute of this movie is spiritual on some level. So perhaps the best place to begin would be to focus on some of the real-world religious leaders portrayed in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and how they are depicted.
Pat Robertson gives the couple their first real start in televangelism, giving them a chance to host a children’s show on his Christian Broadcasting Network. And when they first see him on television, Jim draws Tammy Faye’s attention to how he looks into the camera at times. “He’s talking right to you in the comfort right in your living room.”
When Jim suggests launching a Christian talk show—one ultimately called The 700 Club—Pat is skeptical. “Christians don’t stay up that late,” he says. But when the show becomes a success, the movie suggests that Pat is jealous of Jim’s rising star, suggesting that he take some time off. And his lavish Virginia home becomes a template for what the Bakkers would like to achieve. “God told me He wants me to have what Pat has,” Jim tells Tammy Faye.
Jerry Falwell Sr. is portrayed as a rigid culture warrior—and one consumed with both power and politics. He crows over the rising prominence of televangelism, because television has been such a corrupting influence on youth. “Now God has a voice in this fight,” he says.
“Who’s He fighting?” Tammy Faye chirps.
“The liberal agenda. Feminist agenda. Homosexual agenda. It’s time for a reversal of these trends. The only hope of saving America. … God is my witness, I made a pledge to expose the sins in this country.”
Tammy Faye strongly disagrees, telling Jim that God’s been speaking to her, too. “He says I’m not going to tell people who’s going to hell, Jim. We’re in the business of healing people.” Everyone, gay people included, are made by God, she says, “and God don’t make junk.”
When Falwell learns that his television ministry attracts just a fraction of what the Bakkers’ PTL shows do, he tries to hide his envy. But when the PTL falls into scandal, Falwell (the movie suggests) gives it a push.
Throughout the movie, Tammy Faye’s alienation from the “church” (whether it’s the church she snuck into as a kid or the evangelical subculture) is a recurring theme. Later in life, she admits that Christian networks “won’t have me,” and at a funeral she avoids the gathering afterward. “I don’t belong in there with them.”
And sometimes, her relationship with God seems a little frayed, too. As a kid, she talks with her hand (which serves as a makeshift puppet). “You’re going to hell, Tammy!” the hand tells her. “You’re ugly. You’ve got a demon inside you. If they loved you, they wouldn’t leave you here (while they go to church).” Sometimes when she prays, Tammy asks God why He seems to have left her—why she can’t hear Him anymore.
But despite all this, faith remains a constant in her life. Even as she moves away from the formal church, she talks about how she prays for Jim (now in prison) and that “God will use you again.” She quotes her favorite biblical passage (Psalm 91) before she sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She prays contritely. “I know I got lost,” she says, “And I forgot who You are to me, but that’s done now.”
We see plenty of people pray elsewhere, of course. Bible verses get bandied about. God’s love is referenced, and His will is speculated on, and we hear lots and lots about souls and heaven and hell. A charismatic worship service features dancing and raised hands and speaking in tongues. Jim explicitly links God’s blessings with how much you give to the ministry. He says that his new Christian theme park is the “bait” to hook souls for Jesus. The spirit of someone recently dead appears to visit.
Before they marry, Jim and Tammy Faye passionately make out on a dorm room bed—Jim clutching Tammy Faye’s covered breast and Tammy Faye stroking Jim’s clothed groin as both insist they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. Later, when they’re married, Tammy Faye and Jim have another sexual interaction in the bathtub. We don’t see any nudity in either scene, but both feel pretty graphic nevertheless.
Later, though, Jim’s amorous attentions turn elsewhere. “He barely touches me anymore,” Tammy Faye complains to her mother. “And if he does, it’s not enthusiastic.” When she tries to lure him to bed so they can try to have another baby, Jim tells her that she shouldn’t ask for more than she can give.
Both eventually have affairs. When a man wants to “touch” Tammy Faye as (he argues) she should be touched, she allows him to kiss her, but only on the neck; she straddles him and they make sexual movements (while still clothed) before Tammy Faye puts a stop to it. Jim learns about the affair and sends the lover away while making Tammy Faye confess on air.
Jim is later accused of raping a woman. He claims that it was set up for him in the wake of Tammy Faye’s affair, to “prove something” to himself, but he paid nearly $300,000 out of the ministry budget for the accuser (Jessica Hahn) to keep quiet. When Jim confesses to Tammy Faye, he claims he hated it. (In real life, Bakker was accused of drugging and raping her, which he denied.)
Rumors surface that Jim made advances on men, too, and a headline flashes across the screen referencing a “boy.” We see a hint of his alleged homosexual inclination when Jim wrestles suggestively with another man. He tells a ribald joke about a leper and a prostitute.
Tammy Faye’s earnest broadcasts about sexuality raise plenty of eyebrows in the Christian community. In one, she frankly discusses penile implants (including a demonstration of how it works). In another, she leads an emotional interview with a gay Christian pastor who was diagnosed with AIDS. “How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care.”
Tammy Faye’s mother is called a “harlot” (over her divorce), and Tammy Faye is as well (for wearing makeup). The hymn “He Touched Me” becomes a superficial starting point for seduction.
We hear that before Jim met Tammy Faye, he was driving with his girlfriend at the time, listening to Fats Domino and “having these urges only the devil would approve of.” Distracted, he lost control of a car and hit a little boy. Jim promised God that, if the boy lived, he’d dedicate his life to Him. (And the boy did live.)
One s-word and one use of “d–n.”
After her second baby is born and she and Jim are stressed and fighting, Tammy Faye is prescribed something to help calm her. This leads to Tammy Faye’s dependence on prescription drugs, with doctors providing a number of them—to help her sleep, help her stay calm and normalize her behavior. They culminate in Tammy Faye lying down on set during a live broadcast, and Rachel (Tammy Faye’s mom) telling her that she had enough drugs in her system to “kill a truck driver.”
Tammy Faye then says she’ll stop using them. The doctors, she said, didn’t tell her they were addictive or dangerous. “I’m not a drug addict,” she says. “I’m only addicted to Diet Coke.” (We see evidence of that latter addiction throughout the movie.)
Someone takes a swig from a flask.
As we’ve mentioned, the Bakkers’ ministry was pretty corrupt, with Jim raiding ministry funds to finance his and Tammy Faye’s lifestyle. (Newspaper headlines and media reports tell us that $92 million vanished unaccounted for, and Jim was eventually convicted on 23 counts of fraud.) Other people can act with a lot of duplicity, as well, including spiritual leaders.
A lot of folks under the age of, say, 40 might not have heard of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker before. But back in the 1980s, they were at the top of the televangelist world, reaching 20 million people every week, producing scads of shows and building a sprawling compound called Heritage Village and a Christian theme park dubbed Heritage USA.
Their fall was as spectacular as it was sordid, and Tammy Faye—abetted by her penchant for wearing lots of makeup—became something of an unwitting cultural clown, mocked at every turn. Then, like so many other figures scourged by pop culture, she just seemed to vanish.
But the real Tammy Faye never went away. Not really. She eventually divorced Jim and married Roe Messner, a developer who’d worked on much of Heritage Village. She wrote books, appeared in reality shows and, in 2000, was the subject of a documentary also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, narrated by drag queen RuPaul. She became a gay icon, and she was sometimes branded “the ultimate drag queen”: “When we lost everything,” she told Larry King in her last interview with him, “it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”
By the time of that interview, in 2007, Tammy Faye weighed 65 pounds and was dying from lung cancer. Two days later, she was gone.
This version of The Eyes of Tammy Faye does a couple of very valuable things. One, it reminds us that Tammy Faye (mesmerizingly portrayed by Jessica Chastain) was no clown. She was a complex, deeply passionate woman with her own virtues and vices, just like all of us. Sometimes in pop culture—then and now—we can forget the brands can hide the real people underneath. And as both Jesus and Tammy Faye told us, people—no matter how much we might disagree with them, no matter how fallen they might be—deserve to be treated with honor.
And, of course, The Eyes of Tammy Faye works well as a cautionary story, too. Both Jim and Tammy Faye are deeply humbled by the end of the film, and that painful process ultimately seems good for both of them.
But if Tammy Faye is humanized here, the faith that drove her can be dehumanized much of the time. The Bakkers’ ministry was corrupt, no question. But the film seems to take prurient glee in telling us about that corruption. It takes a hard line against hardliners like Jerry Falwell—embracing Tammy Faye’s easy grace over the condemnatory tone the movie gives to the Moral Majority founder.
It also waves away the traditional values embraced by Falwell. And we suspect that had Tammy Faye not become a gay icon, the film wouldn’t have been nearly as kind to her. The movie tells us how wrong it was to make fun of Tammy Faye—but does the movie itself make fun of Christianity? At least the charismatic Christianity at the movie’s heart?
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an eye-opening film in a lot of ways, and one we can learn from. But just as the Bakkers’ ministry twisted faith for its own ends, the film does its own share of twisting.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.