Comedy Meets Tragedy in Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker Biopic
DIRECTOR: MICHAEL SHOWALTER/2021
“Because he created everything, nothing he has created could possibly be needful to him for his existence. If it were, then like him, it would have always existed. Our God is self-sufficient, needed by all, needful of nothing. Certainly not us.”
I read this in Jen Wilkin’s book None Like Him just before seeing The Eyes of Tammy Faye—I had no idea I’d be watching a case study right after prepping for my Bible study lesson.
Today you know Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain) as fraudsters, but before the scandals, they were two Bible college students who fell in love. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, they begin believing because of genuine encounters with God, but their theology earns disapproval from their school and her mother (Cherry Jones). After a quick wedding, they hit the road to preach to children with puppets. After a chance encounter puts them on TV, they become staples of the televangelism world with Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), and though it’s hard to pinpoint where the money and ego take over, it’s not long before the downfall of this Ananias and Sapphira becomes inevitable.
One of Jim and Tammy Faye’s primary sins is thinking God needs them. Sure, their vanity is on display before Jim starts misusing ministry funds—this pair loves mirrors—and they have a knack for twisting Scripture to support their materialism. But what they don’t hide is their pride in how many souls they’ve led to the Lord. How lucky God is to have them!
This belief is, of course, ridiculous, and Jim and Tammy Faye are ridiculous inside and out. Jim begins by wanting a nice car and but ends up building a theme park. Tammy Faye starts with big hair and ends with tattooed makeup. Even more ridiculous than her sparkly sweaters (over-the-top even for the ‘80s) is their lack of awareness. After an accidental overdose, Tammy insists, “I’m only addicted to Diet Coke.” When Jim is caught lying about extra-marital affairs, he denies and justifies them to the end. They only hire yes-men and Kool-Aid drinkers; when Tammy records an album, her producer exclaims, “I haven’t been this excited about working with an artist since I produced ‘Monster Mash.’”
That line is one of the biggest laughs I got in a theater in 2021, and that’s because The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a comedy of errors as much as it is a biopic. While Falwell and Robertson use their positions for their political ambitions, the corruption of the people-pleasing, attention-seeking Bakkers comes as a side effect of their desperate need for acceptance. She’s an Enneagram 2 (the relationship-oriented Helper), and he’s an Enneagram 3 (the success-driven Achiever); they stumble when their unhealthy obsessions for affection and recognition take over. When they aren’t self-sabotaging, you might feel sorry for them.
Like House of Gucci, this script skirts the line between its characters’ silliness and their personhood. Another version of this film would make Jim and Tammy Faye Saturday Night Live caricatures; with their distinct voices, goopy makeup, and hypocritical choices, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to sketch comedy. But while we laugh at this couple, Chastain and Garfield never do. When Tammy Faye feels ignored or faces sexism from evangelical leaders, Chastain’s eyes tell us everything she is feeling. When Jim finally has a moment of clarity, Garfield makes it a moment of relief, not irony. It’s a delicate dance, and not every actor could pull this off.
As their foil is Tammy’s mother, who stays skeptical of their large lifestyle to the end. Her asceticism may not be attractive, but Eyes doesn’t reduce her to a joke, either, and her character makes the Bakkers’ story crunchy. No character’s faith feels Biblically sound in this film, and the implication is following God lives somewhere between Rachel’s rules-based morality and Tammy’s health-and-wealth advertising. The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t content with easy answers—if only Jim and Tammy Faye could have been, too.
1 Wilkin, J. (2016) None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing). Crossway.