My wife, two boys and I watched “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” this week which is out in theaters. It is about the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker of the PTL Club. For those who may not know, PTL stood for Praise the Lord, and the club was a very popular Christian tele-evangelical show that raised a lot of money. Unfortunately, the money brought in could not keep up with the money going out.
The movie stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as Jim, along with an excellent supporting cast, including Cherry Jones as her mother and Vincent D’Onofrio as Reverend Jerry Falwell.The movie was directed by Michael Showalter and written by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato and Abe Sylvia. Chastain wanted to produce the movie after seeing a documentary that painted Tammy Faye in a different light.
The movie is excellent, but our main reason for wanting to see it is we live in Charlotte where the rise and fall took place in the 1980s. We remember the award winning newspaper articles in The Charlotte Observer and a radio DJ who had a recurring comedy segment called the “Pass the Loot” club. Tammy Faye was mercilessly teased for wearing an awful lot of make-up and crying on camera. As Chastain said in an interview, I watched many hours of footage and I never saw her cry so much that her make-up ran, which was a popular spoof.
Her husband was a narcissist who had to have things his way, even forcing his wife to apologize to him on air when she strayed (his straying at the same time would come up later). And, all the negative press about his fraud on his “partners” as he called his faithful, were, per Jim, reporters out to get him or who just did not like him (he was later found guilty on 24 counts of fraud and went to prison).
What we learned from the newspaper reports, national interviews and his trial, that the Bakkers had a lavish lifestyle built off the hard working donors who sent their money. As Jim famously told Ted Koppel in an interview, “the Lord wanted him to have nice things.” He arguably is the first prosperity preacher at least on air. Now, there is a whole flock of them. But, the key to his fall was his taking in more money based on promises of lifetime stays at a Christian resort that he could not possibly fulfill. So, the only answer was to sell more, in his mind, not unlike a Ponzi scheme.
There was a sex scandal with a young woman, who I won’t name, that was more scintillating than his fraud. Per the movie, we also learned Tammy Faye’s infidelity was a due to an inattentive husband who had wandering eyes for men and women. Forcing his wife to apologize to him on the air was unnerving given what we learned about Jim later. And, per earlier segments, the apology appeared to be a ploy to raise money.
Yet, a key takeaway is Tammy Faye actually had a more progressive view of treating everyone fairly, like Christians should, as she noted on air. A key example is she had an AIDs patient on her show whom she interviewed via satellite. She was outwardly moved by his plight and told her viewers that everyone is the same in God’s eyes. It was very touching. But, that seemed to be par for the course even though her willingness to help was frowned on by Falwell’s Moral Majority.
The part that seemed surprising in the movie is her lack of awareness of the fraud going on. She did ask questions and got poor answers, but she did not follow-up. She was too trusting of her husband when he had abused that trust. His narcissism was, in part, a defense mechanism.
To their credit, you have to applaud their rise through the ranks of tele-evangelists. More than a few of the old guard scoffed, but at their height of fame they had 20 million viewers. Yet, it truly was all smoke and mirrors. God may have wanted them to have nice things, but he sure did not mean for them to take donations from poor people to buy them.
The movie is worth the look. It can be silly at times, as Tammy Faye was an over-the-top personality. Yet, Chastain does an excellent job of showing some depth that needed more exploration. And, Garfield plays Jim Bakker quite convincingly.