Based on the acclaimed 2000 documentary of the same name by gay filmmakers and World of Wonder (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”) masterminds Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Michael Showalter’s Tammy Faye Bakker biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight Pictures), with a screenplay by gay screenwriter Abe Sylvia, is one of the gayest movies you’ll see in 2021.
This, despite the cast of characters including notorious Christianist homophobes Jerry Falwell Sr. (played with pure vitriol by Vincent D’Onofrio) and Pat Robertson (portrayed by Gabriel Olds).
Known as “the Ken and Barbie of televangelists,” Jim (Andrew Garfield) and the titular Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain giving an Oscar-worthy performance) fell from grace following a series of scandals during the late 1980s. Before that, in 1952, we see a young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) being raised in the rural Minnesota household of her divorced, remarried, and devoutly religious mother Rachel (lesbian actress Cherry Jones), and the impact it had on her.
In 1960, as a student at the North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, Tammy Faye (Chastain) meets charismatic classmate Jim (Garfield) and their whirlwind, but chaste, courtship results in marriage, as well as being kicked out of school (because marriage between students was frowned upon). Tammy Faye’s mother is less than thrilled with both pieces of news, as well as the revelation that they plan to be traveling preachers “like Oral Roberts and his wife.”
Uplifting each other on their journey, the pair experiences divine providence early on when, after having their car repossessed somewhere in Virginia in 1965, they meet a man who works for Pat Robertson. By 1969, “The Jimmy and Tammy Show” on CBN is one of the religious broadcasting network’s biggest earners. Soon after, Jim’s show, “The 700 Club” elevates their profile. But a 1971 social event at Robertson’s palatial estate, where they cross paths with the hateful Falwell, who is consumed with fighting the liberal, feminist and homosexual agenda, and his disapproval of Tammy Faye’s openness, leads the duo to create the PTL (Praise The Lord!) network.
Even if you weren’t an evangelical, it was hard to avoid the waves being made by the Bakkers who were seemingly unstoppable. In addition to Rachel’s stinging criticism of her daughter and son-in-law, the couple was being rightfully hounded by the secular press. But all the Bakkers had to do was go on the air ask for financial assistance from their followers and they were “blessed” with unlimited cash.
But all was not right in their world. In spite of all the incoming funds, PTL was running a deficit. Jim, who had a secret history of same-gender attraction, was maintaining a special friendship with assistant Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi). Feeling neglected, a pregnant Tammy Faye began her own fling with music producer Gary (Mark Wystrach). Add to that Tammy Faye’s developing pill addiction, money trouble during the construction of the Heritage USA religious theme park, Jim’s shaming of Tammy Faye on the air, Falwell’s ongoing dislike of the Bakkers, Tammy Faye’s embracement of Steve (Randy Havens), a gay man with AIDS, and derailment was imminent.
When all the scandals became public, led off by Jim’s affair with Jessica Hahn, the downfall was swift. Falwell reveled in their demise, taking control of their network and humiliating them every chance he got (mighty Christianist of him!).
All in all, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a portrait of truly unlikeable people. However, for all of her flaws, Tammy Faye maintained some of her integrity, not an easy thing to do in that den of vipers, and her story is one for the ages.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.