Movies

Review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jesus wept.

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Gene Scott was my kind of televangelist. Whenever I was in LA in the 1980s I'd flick on his late-night talkfest (just him, talking) in whatever hotel room I happened to be staying and drink in his act—the carefully tended white hair, the fuming cigars, and the parade of eccentric hats (jaunty straw Panamas, jungle-ready pith helmets, salty captain's caps) that he wore while dunning his viewers for cash. Which was often, if not always. (Gene described the pledging of money to his ministry as "a worshipful act.") The man was shameless, and thus mesmerizing.

Scott wasn't a run-of-the-mill Pentecostal primitive (he had a Ph.D. of some sort from Stanford University). But as Werner Herzog demonstrated in God's Angry Man, his 1981 documentary about Gene, the pastor could thunder and howl with the best of his fiery tribe. His followers couldn't get enough of this, and even non-believers found him highly entertaining.

I don't doubt that Gene Scott loved the Lord, and I imagine the same could be said—although maybe more quietly—about his televisual contemporaries, the husband-and-wife gospel-floggers Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who rose to fame and (especially) fortune in the 1970s and '80s before being brought down to earth (and in Jim's case prison) by the tireless tax enforcers of the Internal Revenue Service.

Like Gene Scott, the Bakkers, too, were a fun watch—although for reasons of which the couple themselves might not have been entirely conscious. With Jim's blindingly toothy grin and Tammy Faye's bizarre, mascara-bomb eyes, the Bakkers were the sort of pitiful hicks who would likely be treated with jeers and condescension by most filmmakers. But Michael Showalter, the director of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, sees them in all of their flawed humanity. Basing his movie on a 2000 documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and a script by Abe Sylvia, Showalter (The Big Sick) sketches in the backroads world of charismatic Christianity in the 1950s, and follows it through succeeding decades as it morphs into a very big business.

The director is fortunate—blessed, you might say—to have Jessica Chastain giving a sensational performance in the role of Tammy Faye, complete with all of the real woman's alarming makeup choices (the tattooed lip liner, the gold and aqua-blue eyeshadow) and her genuine devotion to the God of mercy and forgiveness. The actress is both emotionally and physically convincing at each stage of Tammy Faye's development—from the slim, sunny Bible college student who meets and then marries the borderline goofy Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, also fine) to the middle-aged woman at the end of the movie, her body thickened with age and her life crushed by the shame of her husband's downfall. Shining along with Chastain are Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye's disapproving mother and Vincent D'Onofrio as the scowlingly right-wing Moral Majority kingpin Jerry Falwell. (There's also an intriguing scene featuring Mark Wystrach, who plays the late record producer Gary Paxton, a man who moved from making novelty pop hits to gospel music, and at one point guided Tammy Faye's vocal performances in the Bakkers' home studio. "I haven't been this excited about working with an artist," he tells her, "since I produced 'Monster Mash.'")

As itinerant soldiers in the fundamentalist faith army, the Bakkers started out employing puppets to court the kiddie audience (leaving Tammy Faye with a chronic Betty Boop vocal squeak). Moving to North Carolina, they founded their own satellite television network, which before long was broadcasting their own talk show, The PTL Club. (The acronym naturally standing for Praise the Lord.) Fat with viewer donations (and $400,000 in self-awarded annual compensation), they built a $3-million headquarters and a huge Christian theme park. Tammy Faye floated plans to start staging Christian rock concerts ("something for the kids"), and scandalized Falwell and other big-time evangelists by promoting gay rights on the air and conducting a sympathetic interview with a Christian AIDS victim. ("I can't look at this," Falwell tells Jim Bakker.)

Then the roof fell in. It was reported that Jim had paid $279,000 in hush money to a secretary named Jessica Hahn after she charged that he had raped her. (Bakker admitted having sex with Hahn, but denied it was rape.) The IRS announced that the Bakkers owed $55 million in back taxes. And that was pretty much that. Jim Bakker, indicted for fraud, willingly took the fall on his own, leaving Tammy Faye to fend for herself; she eventually divorced him.

There's not a moment of glib ridicule in this movie. Chastain plays Tammy Faye Bakker as a woman of real faith, wronged not just by her worm of a husband but by stuffed-shirt preachers and tabloid culture at large. At the end of the film we see her alone in a big empty bed, praying. "God?" she says. "Where'd you go?"

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  2. $55 million in back taxes? That would be well over $100 million in income not reported. What happened to that cash? It would be very hard to spend so much and have so little left over. Or is the IRS, like DEA, over-inflating the “value” of prosecutions simply to sensationalize cases against out-of-favor defendants?

    1. I always assumed the argument was that the donations were personal income, not charitable, as if the right forms weren’t filed or some other paperwork snafu. As to where it all went, a theme park and headquarters could soak up a lot of money, especially if spent by people with no experience in such projects who were suckered by everybody and his dog.

      I heard similar stories on a much smaller scale about someone who bought a historic old hotel, renovated it for several million dollars, and eventually sold it at a loss. Some of the contractors were not-quite-openly bragging about how much they’d ripped off the owner and how much money that’d made, and I know at least one of them built a pretty nice house not soon after.

      1. Wouldn’t most of that spending count as business expenses and be deductible before taxes?

        1. I am no expert in such things, I recognized early on that I was the guy in the back room, head down in a problem, not the business owner with a different mindset. But my memory is feeling that the IRS had found an incompetently run business which they could make headlines with, not any actual malfeasance. They didn’t have yachts or a mansion that I remember, seemed like amateurs compared to Swaggart, Falwell, and the others.

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    2. I recall them pleading for donations to help fund a new university. Which are not cheap things in the least. Probably sold it all at a fire sale to Falwell.

  3. I had forgotten all about “Pass The Loot” jokes. Made me chuckle.

    Her eye makeup was extraordinary. No one could ever forget that!

    1. Robert Murphy of the “Murphy in the Morning” radio show on WAYS 61.1 AM in Charlotte, NC and his friend and co-worker Larry Sprinkle (who was the original Tidy-Bowl man on the TV commercial,) were the ones behind “The Pass The Loot Club” parody of the Praise The Lord Club in the mid-1970s.

      Even as a youngster and a believer who didn’t always understand the sometimes adult humor, I thought their parody was a silly and funny delight. The Christian community of the area was scandalized by the parody and wrote angry letters and protested this sacreligious humor, but Murphy and Sprinkle were vindicated when the Bakkers hous of cards fell.

      One of my managers at a Summer job was listening to the radio and tsk-tsked and said: “PTL is going to Hell!” I smiled a Cheshire Cat grin and giggled at the fond memories of the Pass The Loot Club. He then replied: “Well, it’s true.”

      With a simple search, you can find YouTube video for both The Pass The Loot Club audio and YouTube videos of Larry Sprinkle as The Tidy Bowl Man.

      (As a sidebar, Larry Sprinkle also performed as a superhero space alien called Sonic Man introducing WCCB-TV 18’s Afternoon cartoons The Fabulous Funnies, as well as gave helpful advice to kids between cartoons. “Obon, Paxies! Sonic Man here…”)

      “Memories, may be beautiful and yet…” 🙂

    2. As for Tammy Faye’s make-up, it was probably applied via trowel and mortar!

  4. I recall seeing Grandma and Grandpa writing massive checks to Jim and Tammy. Massive checks that made my dad soooo angry. Because they were checks out of the inheritance. Even more ironic because my Grandpa was otherwise extremely financially competent. But all it took was some fluttering eyelashes and a toothy grin and my grandparents were all too willing to dump all excess funds into their ministry.

    You can’t convince me Tammy was just an innocent patsy. She was all the way in.

    1. As much as Televantelists are laughable, that aspect of them isn’t funny.

      How much more could families accomplish for themselves and their heirs if they didn’t throw tbeir money away on religoous con-artists?

      Invested in a good portfolio indexed for inflation and tax-deferred, that money could mean owning a home mortgage-free, touring the country or world in an RV, full-time homeschooling plus a college education for the kids in a decent community or trade school and even more money in the future, a great retirement!, money invested to further the cause of freedom nationwide and worldwide, the possibilities are limitless!

      The world needs a Secular Dave Ramsey so people could scream “FREEEEEEDOOOOM!” 10 percent or more sooner!

  5. Ah, the televangelist scandals of the ’80s. Good times.

    Even Zappa sang about Tammy Faye – Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk

    And there was Satellite, a more generic song about the era by The Hooters.

    1. Martin Briley did a 1983 song “Put Your Hands on the Screen” and Genesis in the 1992 did “Jesus He Knows Me.” Both songs had videos that were scathing satires of the Televangelist phenomenon.

      Briley’s Telvangelist seemed like a hybrid of Benny Hinn and Earnest Angley. It also had a subtle video allusion to Peter Popoff’s hidden radio transmitter and earphone used to convey information about congregants, which was exposed by debunker James “The Amazing” Randi.

      The Genesis video trashed elements of Earnest Angley, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart, as well as the countless adulterous and Gay scandals and peccadillos throughout the Evangelical community.

      Both were “Art Imitating Life” in so many ways!

      Redd Foxx on one of his 1970s X-Rated “party tapes” was even more prescient. He called Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and Father Divine “pimps,” and threatened: “If I was President, I’d tax yo religious ass!”

      Not that I support taxing anything or anybody, but maybe something like that might get the religious mad enough to call for repealing the 16th Amendnent instead of waiting for the non-existent Lord to repay.

  6. Doug Marlette used to skewer them in his political cartoons back in the day. Other than that I don’t remember much about them except the scandal (along with the other evangelical preachers who got in trouble back then). Nobody paid much attention to those guys in my hometown.

    1. Doug Marlette who did the “W8ll B. Dunn” strip and Burke Breathed who did “Bloom County” were two of my favorite cartoon satirists of the 1980s, especially on the subject of religious con-artists. Marlette was a somewhat Moderate “Liberal” but I think Breathed identified as Libertarian.

  7. I haven’t checked Reason’s whole Jim Bakker archive, but did they mention at any time that the judge who sentenced him got slapped down on appeal for invoking religion to justify a harsh sentence?

    I hope Reason mentioned it back in the day, since it would be an excellent chance to fulfill the libertarian mission of standing up for the rights of unsympathetic people.

    1. Here, it really would be fitting to say: “Both Sides” because Televangelists and Taxmen both really suck!

  8. Gene Scott’s show was hilarious, how could anything with a preacher dressed as a cowboy, talking about aliens not be?

    1. “Dr.” Gene Scott sure knew how to run a con-game.

      For “Dr.” Gene Scott, it was not enough for his flock of sheeple to give a 10 percent tithe. No, you had to give your “firstfruits” (as dictated in Leviticus 2 and Deuteronomy 26,) and “Honor the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase, (as dictated in Proverbs 3:9.)

      In modern terms, this means 10 percent of your worldly goods, plus your first paycheck of the year, plus your first interest earnings/dividend check/capital gains/who the Hell knows what else Gene could want? of the year!

      In good times like the Early-Mid Eighties or the Mid-Nineties were, that could mean as much as 18 percent or more of your worldly goods goes The Haberdashery’s Friend “Dr.” Gene Scott!

      No damn wonder “Dr.” Gene Scott had mansions, race horses, and swimming pools and jacuzzis full of hot and cold running wimmins, not to mention his hawt, mulletted, obviously cuckquean Wifey Melissa Scott, the Mrs. Walker to his Captain Walker!

      And all “Dr.” Gene Scott had to do to get it all was:

      * Get on public access TV,

      * Be a fashion plate for every hat from a Sombrero to a Castro hat to a Ten-Gallon Texas Ranger,

      * Then ramble on about obscurantist Theological argle-bargle during his “festivals,”

      * And then say: “Well…What are you waiting for? Get on the damn telephone!…”

      Nice work if you could get it and had no conscience. So absurd you just had to laugh!

      1. Next you’ll be telling people pro-wrestling is fake.

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  10. Easier to list the televangelists who didn’t rape.

    1. I’m sure you’d have that list.
      Poor tony.

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