Greetings again from the darkness. We now have the latest example for those who fall on one side or the other when it comes to documentary vs dramatized biopic. Director Michael Showalter (the excellent THE BIG SICK, 2017) and writer Abe Sylvia have adapted the 2000 documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – and even kept the same title. The focus here (obviously) is on Tammy Faye Bakker, as she and her televangelist husband Jim skyrocketed to fame before imploding in a quite public and spectacular fashion. Jim went from world-renowned Christian TV personality to scandal-burdened prison inmate, while Tammy Faye rose up from roots of poverty to beloved personality, before becoming a media and Talk Show punchline caricature.
Regardless of your preferred biopic style, or your memories of the Bakkers’ rise and fall, most of us can agree that Jessica Chastain delivers a superb and entertaining performance as Tammy Faye. Already established as one of our finest actors, this is truly a passion project for Ms. Chastain, as she purchased the film rights nearly a decade ago. Here, as you might expect, her features are often buried under prosthetics and mounds of make-up to achieve the oh-so-familiar Tammy Faye look. She captures the babyish voice, the recognizable chuckle, and even sings the songs (very well) that Tammy Faye sang on camera and released albums.
Depending on your expectations, the film serves up a sympathetic view of a true believer with a heart of gold, or it merely skims the surface of a ministry filled with fraud, greed, and deception. And it’s likely both. Tammy Faye is a bit of an enigma. As a child, she was forbidden by her mother (Cherry Jones) from attending church, as she served as a reminder of the ‘Scarlet D’ (divorce) burdening her mother. However, one sip of the sacrament sent young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) into speaking in tongues and on the road to North Central Bible College where she would meet Jim Bakker.
Andrew Garfield portrays Jim Bakker, and captures the very familiar speech pattern and effeminate mannerisms of the man who proclaimed God did not want poverty for his followers … a belief that led first to the Bakkers’ “The 700 Club” on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) Christian Broadcasting Network, and ultimately to their own network and “The PTL Club”, followed by Heritage USA, a Christian theme park. Along the way, they crossed paths with the powerful, ultra conservative Christian, Jerry Falwell (a reserved Vincent D’Onofrio), a man who was envious of the number of followers and the dollars generated by Jim and Tammy Faye. Falwell filled a significant role in how things played out for the Bakkers, and that part is touched on here.
Showalter opts to open the film with a montage of newscasts reporting the Bakker collapse, followed by Tammy Faye in 1994 commenting on her famous eyelashes by stating, “That’s who I am.” The rest of the film is a re-telling of the Tammy Faye story, though we are left to ponder, ‘How much did she really know?”. We see a good-hearted person – a woman brave enough to publicly stand up for the LGBTQ community despite the objections of powerful men in the church. We also see a woman who enjoys fine luxury living and asking few questions, while consistently holding to her message, “God loves you. He really does.” Evangelicals, hypocrisy, financial standing, and political influence are all part of the story, but this is no deep dive into what sent Jim Bakker to prison. Even the Jessica Hahn scandal garners but a brief mention. Instead, this is the story of one woman who was trusted by so many prior to becoming a punchline. One could even say Jim and Tammy Faye were the pioneers of Reality TV, and their rise and fall are only unusual due to the ties to Christianity.
In theaters September 17, 2021