MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 1 out of 5
As the title suggests, the opening shot of the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye focuses on the anxious pupils of Tammy Faye in the mid-90s, well past her glory days. They are caked in vibrant blue makeup, seared with dark eyeshadow, and feature prominent fake eyelashes seemingly a meter long. “We can take those off,” a sympathetic intern says as she is about to begin an interview. “Oh no,” Faye coos in her thick Minnesota accent. “They don’t come off. I had them permanently tattooed.”
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that not only are her looks fake but her money, persona, and faith life are as well. This is a woman—an admittedly good-hearted woman—who never changes or wavers despite the obvious evidence against her chosen purpose. It’s rare to see a film that has such distain for its subject, and it says quite a bit more about the industry that created this monstrosity rather than the woman behind the character.
The film starts in the 1950s with Tammy’s enthusiasm for ministry. She is the spitting image of a good Christian girl who wears long clothes, praises Jesus vocally, and always wear a smile. Yet beneath that façade is a more rebellious streak. After a squeaky-clean picnic date with Jim Bakker, she immediately goes back to her dorm with her future husband for some not-so-Christian heavy petting. It’s incredibly weird and uncomfortable watching historical people be sexual—especially when there’s not evidence the event occurred.
After marriage, the Bakkers started a small touring ministry. Jim handled the adults while Tammy uses puppets to entertain the children. They met up with Pat Robertson and entered mainstream televangelism. Soon their PTL (Praise The Lord) network is the largest Christian media company in the world with a daily audience of over 20 million. Of course, too big to fail often does fail and by the late 80s the Bakkers became shrouded in scandals that threatened not only their company but their marriage as well.
Tammy and Jim were prominent practitioners of the “prosperity gospel,” the health-and-wealth philosophy that God desires material blessings for us on Earth and will provide such blessings based on our faith and faithfulness. Tied at the hip with this dogma is “seed faith,” in which God asks for your monetary donation as a sign of trust only to multiply it many times in the future. Not only is this model clearly unbiblical, it is quite unsustainable as well. The Bakkers overspent, making them more and more desperate. Soon Tammy was literally hawking penis pumps to middle aged conservative viewers. This sort of cinematic criticisms of some forms of American Protestant Christianity is fair but also quite hypocritical coming from Hollywood, which amasses even bigger fortunes for much less noble causes.
The largest offensive of Tammy Faye is located in its portrayal of religious faith (Christian or otherwise) as fundamentally no different than a spiritual Ponzi scheme of the Bakker empire. Tammy’s superfluous belief is constantly contrasted with her mother’s more substantial home-grown faith. Yet her mother is also demonized as someone who constantly talks about “hell fire” and often belittles her daughter. The film suggests that there are only two viable religious options: oppressive, legalistic, and conservative or flaky, greedy, and liberal. The best option is Tammy’s father, who jokingly states at his wife’s funeral that he “now he longer has to go to church.”
There seems to be precious little that the filmmakers admire about Tammy Faye. If so, why make the film at all? The answer comes roughly three-quarters of the way through the movie when Tammy breaks precedent and interviews a gay pastor with AIDS. This controversial episode solidified her reputation as an LGBT ally. Combined with her flashy makeup and unconventional appearance, she would be appropriated as a “gay icon” after her death.
Indeed, the documentary that provides the inspiration for the film was narrated by prominent drag queen RuPaul. The message is clear. Tammy was a good person not because of her Christian faith or the many legitimate social welfare projects the Bakkers created but due to her compassion toward people of alternative lifestyles who were often shunned by her peers.
As a work of cinema The Eyes of Tammy Faye is slow and predicable. The characters never grow or change. There are a few token references to spiritual maturity but nothing substantial. Perhaps this Jesus fellow had some good ideas, but Christianity is a fraud. Maybe this is because the filmmakers have never met a true Christian hero such as St. Damien of Molokai or Jim Elliot. Or maybe they have and aren’t interested. Perhaps they only have eyes for themselves.
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