Tammy Faye was not a saint, it’s fair to say. And The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Searchlight, 2021), based on Felton Bailey’s and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name, directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Jessica Chastain, is not a capital-G-Great movie, although Chastain’s performance probably is. But it is nonetheless very much worthwhile, because it sees Tammy Faye as a person, not merely a personality, and spurs us to consider more carefully how much has changed, and how much hasn’t, in American Evangelicalism in the decades since she was a household name.
Eyes unfortunately never quite figures out what kind of film it wants to be, perhaps because Showalter is drawn to the comedic and Chastain to the dramatic or perhaps because Tammy Faye’s story is simply impossible to categorize. In any case, it comes off at least at times as somewhat self-conscious and awkward, like a not-entirely-intentional mashup of Marriage Story, The Righteous Gemstones, and Black Narcissus.
Saying that suggests the movie is outrageous, I know; but it is not. Going in, I expected it to be out-and-out gonzo, as off-center and “made up” as Tammy Faye herself. But it never actually lets itself go. Chastain goes all in, but the film itself plays it all a bit too safe and straight. That said, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is more than a vehicle for Chastain’s remarkable performance. And in the final analysis, it does work a kind of magic, bringing us into the presence not of an icon, not of a star, but of a personality who, against all odds, never lost touch with her humanity or the humanity of others.
In his profile of the real Tammy Faye, John Wigger, a professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the author of a recent book on the Bakkers’ ministry empire, tells what I find to be an illuminating story. During a PTL episode dedicated to the promotion of her first autobiography, Tammy remarked, almost offhandedly, that if she had to be someone other than herself, she would choose Sophia Loren or Dolly Parton. Jim interrupted immediately, insisting she should have chosen Kathryn Kuhlman or some other famous evangelist. But Tammy Faye held her ground.
This story suggests I think, that in spite of the fact that Tammy Faye obviously wanted to be a performer, a showbiz idol, at an even deeper level she also wanted to be true to herself, true to God, and true to the calling she sensed God had placed on her life—even if she never quite figured out how to do it. The Eyes of Tammy Faye, thankfully, honors this about her, this childish/childlike openness to the truth. Chastain’s and Showalter’s Tammy Faye is cartoonish, to be sure—a puppet-wielding, tongue-talking, devil-chasing Betty Boop. But she is also somehow genuinely sympathetic. Embarrassingly campy, she is also weirdly likable, and in some sense even relatable.
It does work a kind of magic, bringing us into the presence not of an icon, not of a star, but of a personality who, against all odds, never lost touch with her humanity or the humanity of others.
Early in the film, an 18-year-old Tammy Faye, right at the beginning her Bible School studies, confidently names her ministerial calling: “I’m going to sing the Word in every tent and every church. God told me that that’s what he wants for me.” When a legalistic professor tries to shame her, she responds with a glad but defiant laugh, effortlessly dashing off a line from Paul’s defense before Felix: “I do my best always to maintain a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” We see in that moment that Tammy Faye is as shrewd as she is sweet, and we gather that she intends to be a minister in her own right, not only a minister’s wife. But we also cannot help but see how she is seen by others around her, especially the men, especially the ones with power. And we know what that will mean for her, as well as why it is that she cannot see what is coming.
There is moment of something very close to transcendence in the film, a scene as disconcerting as it is hilarious, and it happens right at the start. Tammy Faye, no more than 10 or 11 years old, desperately wants to be saved but can’t because she’s not allowed to show her face in her mother’s strict Assemblies of God church. “There’s reasons you can’t be seen in church, Tam,” her stepfather tells her. “Grown-up reasons.” Tammy Faye knows the truth: “Is it because everyone thinks you’re a harlot? I come from a time before Fred made you respectable and stuff.”
Her mother’s response, delivered perfectly by Jones, must seem melodramatic to everyone lucky enough not to have grown up in the kind of old-fashioned Pentecostalism Tammy Faye knew too well: “Only reason they let me back is cause nobody but me can play the piano. But you remind them I was divorced. They see you, all of us is gonna be banished, the souls of all your brothers and sisters burning in hell because you don’t listen and can’t sit still… Stop performing.”
We cannot help but see how she is seen by others around her, especially the men, especially the ones with power.
Hurt, Tammy Faye is not deterred. And the following Sunday, she sneaks into the one-room chapel, making her way down the aisle to the preacher’s invitation, eyes fixed on the cross above the pulpit. When asked if she’s ready to “accept the love,” she smiles, drinks from the chalice and begins to shake, little arms raised above her head, hands trembling. Then, to her mother’s horror, she falls to the floor, speaking in tongues, and someone shouts: “she’s peeing herself, praise God!” The congregation gathers around her, overjoyed.
This moment changes Tammy Faye. It changes her so deeply, in fact, she never changes again. It is as if in that moment of letting herself go, yielding all defenses to her heart’s innermost desire, she comes into contact with something so constant, so unchangeable, that her soul is irreversibly opened, fixed in conviction. Until the end, the film strives to make this clear: throughout her life, this same eagerness to put herself forward, this same willingness to break with religious convention, this same readiness to abandon herself in prayer makes it possible for Tammy Faye to be touched by and to reach out people others in her world disregard or condemn as untouchable.
Her 1985 interview with Steve Pieters, an openly gay man dying with AIDS, is perhaps the most obvious example of Tammy Faye’s unusual openness. In the film, their conversation is a moving exchange. But in real life, it must have been genuinely unbelievable—unbelievably scandalous for many, and even more unbelievably comforting for others. Even now, it seems like something that could not have happened; as always, life is so much stranger than fiction. As Steve Rabey explains in his CT review of Bailey’s and Barbato’s documentary, Tammy Faye became from that moment “an ambassador of God’s grace to a community that has received too few envoys from evangelicalism,” transcending the “‘love-the-sinner-but-hate-the sin’ approach that sinners typically find so unsatisfactory.” The bottom line is this, Tammy Faye’s own pain opened her up to the pain of others. She sensed it in them, and moved toward it, caringly. And that odd but deeply genuine sincerity set her apart, and made her a sign of hope.
Wigger says that the former PTL staffers he interviewed all remembered her in pretty much the same way: “candid, spontaneous, and charismatic. She said exactly what was on her mind, no matter how inappropriate.” And that unguardedness, remarkably at odds with her highly-stylized appearance, made her disarming, a bright, unthreatening presence. She embodied a different, less imposing or intrusive side of faith. As Wigger says, “her vulnerability and compassion give her a timelessness not tied to the politics of the moment. Her faith was more holistic, and less a vehicle for power.”
Throughout her life, this same eagerness to put herself forward, this same willingness to break with religious convention, this same readiness to abandon herself in prayer makes it possible for Tammy Faye to be touched by and to reach out people others in her world disregard or condemn as untouchable.
Tammy Faye does not change over the course of Showalter’s story, but the film’s ending stands in stark contrast with its beginning. In the closing scene, Tammy Faye, now divorced, wearied by the scandals, performs at an Oral Roberts University gala. The crowd is aloof, cold. Still, she does not shy away from the moment: “I haven’t had a concert in a decade, and I am a little nervous,” she admits. “But I’ll do my best to deliver him to you folks tonight, ok?”
She eases her way, obviously unsure, into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And as she lingers over the third line—“he hath loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword”—we’re flashed back to the scene of her as a child, eyes set on the cross, making her way down the aisle of her mother’s church toward the experience that will define her. In real time, her eyes are wide with self-doubt, anxiety. By the time she finishes the chorus, however, she has thrown herself head over heels into the performance: “Come on everybody, feel his miracles!” She ends in tears, offering a praise which feels true to more less everything we’ve learned about her to this point—good, bad, and different: “Oh! How thankful I am for the amazing grace of God. Because without that beautiful grace I wouldn’t even be here today. That grace that reached down and said, ‘Tammy Faye, I love you! And I love you just the way you are!’ You know God’s grace is sufficient enough for you today, too. And he loves you just the way you are!”
I expected the movie to end right at that moment—a renewed Tammy Faye looking right into the camera, radiant with acceptance. But it does not. Behind her, a huge American flag unfurls, and she returns to the song, campier than ever, before ending with another prayer: “Thank you Lord for the United States of America. We thank you Lord that we live in this wonderful country. God bless America. Hallelujah. Oh yeah!” Bailey’s and Barbato’s documentary includes this scene, although they do not set it as the ending and Tammy Faye does not close her prayer with the theatrical “Oh yeah!” So why does Showalter end with it?
Why, in the end, after everything the film has done to humanize her, is Tammy Faye made to look so ridiculous?
I suspect this ending is not about her at all, but about white American Evangelicalism in the Trump era. It is, I think, a kind of warning and rebuke. And even if it is largely false to the characterization of Tammy Faye and out of tune with the rest of the film, reducing her to a type, a figure, it is perhaps a needed rebuke. In the American Evangelical traditions, nationalism, faith, and show business are all bound up together—and under such an arrangement, show business always gets the last word: “God bless America. Hallelujah. Oh yeah!”
Roger Ebert concludes his review of Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1951) with this elegy: “The young priest’s ideas prove to sustain him in the final moments, but they did little earlier to console him. He leaves behind a world of cruelty and petty ignorance. He did nothing deserving blame. He did nothing deserving blame.” The same cannot be said for Tammy Faye, of course. Nevertheless, even if she cannot be said to have set a good example, there is something admirable in how she lived with her life and in how she faced her death. Ebert observes that the young priest smiles only once in the film, and in that smile gives us “a flash of the boy inside the sad man.” And he marvels “Bresson does nothing to make me ‘like’ the priest, but my empathy was urgently involved.” Tammy Faye, by contrast, is always smiling, in the film and in real life, her inner child flashing out through her sadness. And that transparency, however fleeting, awakens the same urgent empathy in us that Ebert was made to feel.
Reflecting on George Bernanos’ warning, “Whenever the Church becomes too involved in politics, it is no longer bringing forth enough saints,” Jean-Luc Marion, the Roman Catholic theologian, concludes: “The saints alone reform the Church, but by edifying it, not by taking it over, or by governing it.” The Eyes of Tammy Faye troubles Marion’s conclusion. Certainly, Tammy Faye was not a saint. But she was strange, strange in exactly the way that made her attractive to so many who had suffered deep estrangement. And that is a good not entirely unlike holiness, and no less miraculous. She was not a saint and she did not reform the church, but she did, and does, remind us that American Evangelicalism is desperately in need of reformation, because, as Bonhoeffer saw so clearly, it is a Christianity that has never been reformed.