by Levi Dayan
art by Eva Sturm-Gross
[originally published October 2021]
Warning: contains descriptions of sexual assault
The entire Jim Bakker saga is the kind of thing that seems so desperate for a film adaptation that you’d be forgiven for not realizing how difficult it might be. For those who are not familiar, Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker were the co-hosts of The PTL Club, and were among the most well known televangelists of the ‘70s and ‘80s. However, due to Bakker’s seemingly compulsive addiction to committing absurd amounts of fraud, The PTL Club came to an end in the late ‘80s, and its hosts were forever relegated to the universe of cheap punchlines on late night TV. After being found guilty on several counts of fraud and subsequently serving a dramatically reduced jail sentence, Bakker pivoted to a different grift, one centered around rapture prophecies and prepper-baiting, one that he continues to this day—my introduction to Bakker was through edits of him shilling his unspeakably disgusting food supplies made by Vic Berger. Following Bakker’s imprisonment, Tammy Faye Bakker left him for the guy who built The PTL Club’s amusement park, and passed away in 2007. Despite the fact that The PTL Club was Bakker’s show in pretty much every way, his wife and co-host Tammy Faye became far more famous than him, in large part thanks to her legendary piles of gaudy makeup and her infinitely peppy—sometimes drug-fueled—showmanship. The fact that the recent biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye centers around her, rather than her criminal husband, comes as no surprise.
The Bakkers’ story is a difficult one to tell. It demands a delicate balance of absurdist cringe comedy and Shakespearean tragedy.Jim Bakker’s addiction to crime, for instance, is so absurd that you can’t help but laugh.But the tragedy of his story—an abused, emotionally damaged man so addicted to the grift that it stops becoming clear what the benefit even is for him—s undeniable. In other words, there has to be an element of comedy and tragedy in this story, and there isn’t a clear way to balance the two.. The fact that Tammy Faye, Bakker’s wife and co-host, and the subject of this film, is one of the greatest camp icons of the modern era, checks out. To paraphrase John Waters’ definition of camp, the Bakker saga is both tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic in spades, and the story of a weirdo, potentially bisexual, televangelist fraudster, his makeup-drenched gay icon wife, and the bizarre crimes and sex scandals that drag down their Christian empire, indeed read as a badly over-budget Waters flick.
However, a badly over-budget Waters flick this is not. It’s a pretty generic biopic, focusing on Tammy Faye’s unlikely journey towardsuccess in a field dominated by chauvinistic, head-of-the-household men, her ruin at the hands of Bakker’s sociopathic behavior, and her quasi-redemption as a gay icon and feminist role model. It takes this deepy ridiculous story and tells it with a stone-cold straight face. In some ways, this could be considered an accomplishment. But,even if this film was the John Waters-directed nightmare of my dreams, it still might not work for a story as genuinely tragic as this one. But instead of finding the middle ground between comedy and tragedy, the film just sort of sits there without trying hard to be either. No one could take this story seriously while watching the movie, but the near-complete absence of any dark comedy makes one question whether director Michael Showalter—who also directed The Big Sick, a film that presents a different, though still harrowing, true story in a comical way without detracting from the scariness of the situation—knows this.
The truth is that this film tells the story of one of the most batshit insane scams in Christian America, and the craven desperation of pretty much everyone involved in said scam just isn’t there. I can see how Tammy Faye could be seen as bizarrely inspirational, but her story is anything but. There’s a great amount of debate over just how sympathetic of a character Tammy Faye was in the whole Bakker saga. It’s not entirely clear how complicit she was in Jim Bakker’s crimes; she definitely knew what was going on, but considering the stress of being on TV, having a drug problem, and, you know, being married to Jim Bakker, it’s understandable that she would just try to weather the storm. It also wouldn’t be entirely surprising if she actually was complicit on some level, but again, it’s hard to know for sure. But whether she’s a victim of Bakker’s insanity, a co-conspirator, or (most likely, in my opinion) a little of both, I definitely think of her as the co-host of a TV show that facilitated mass fraud before I think of her as a feminist or a gay icon. She deserves credit as a trailblazer, because I certainly don’t think women would have as much of a presence within televangelism were it not for her eagerness to use the medium to reach out to the world, no matter how much it mocked her. But at the same time, it’s not like televangelism hasn’t continued to be a hotspot for hateful grifters in the wake of The PTL Club’s downfall.
This film is definitely very, very sympathetic to Tammy Faye, but it makes sense that it would be. She did seem to genuinely care about gay people in a time when that wasconsidered a pretty bold stance. But I definitely wasn’t expecting this film to be so sympathetic to Jim. Again, Jim Bakker went through an unthinkably traumatic childhood, and his life is a very clear example of how hurt people hurt people. But that should be the extent to which anyone sympathizes with him. Yet the film closes by making Bakker look like a genuinely changed man. Maybe this would make sense if the film came out 20 years ago—which is when the documentary this film is based on came out—but it makes absolutely no sense today. After getting out of jail early, Bakker took advantage of the Black church as a way to build his own redemption arc, left them far behind pretty much as soon as he got the ball rolling again on his televangelist hustle, and has since spent his life shilling food supplies to preppers, promoting fake COVID cures, and making batshit insane prophecies about Trump bringing about the return of the Messiah or whatever. In short, if looking at Jim Bakker as a well-intentioned man who simply had no control over his demons was questionable 20 years ago, it certainly doesn’t make any sense today.
Perhaps the most baffling thing about the movie, to me, is the way it frames accusations made by church secretary Jessica Hahn. Hahn claims that Bakker drugged and raped her, and that Bakker used PTL funds to pay her to keep quiet about the assault. This incident, which did not lead to any criminal charges but did lead to Bakker stepping down from The PTL Club before being indicted for fraud, is downplayed in the film, which is pretty fucking shocking considering the feminist lens through which itapproaches Tammy Faye’s story. All the talk of the scandal in the film is done in a weird sort of hush-hush manner—i.e. “we need to talk about that thing,” “I may have done something wrong,” etc.— and viewers could be forgiven for coming away from the film thinking Bakker simply had an affair rather than violently drugging and raping a church secretary. It seems as though the film wanted to frame the whole thing as a lapse in moral judgment and not a violent and unforgivable assault in order to present Bakker as someone capable of redemption. This is reinforced by the final scene, where Bakker says that he just hopes “that girl” is ok. And it’s all just really gross.
The single biggest crime a film depicting a story such as this one can commit is being boring, and fortunately the film doesn’t quite go that far. Andrew Garfield’s performance as Jim Bakker is pretty weak, and fails to capture both the weirdness of the character, as well as the charisma that he somehow channeled into a lifelong career despite. But the main star, Jessica Chastain, gives a great performance as Tammy Faye that shoots just enough life into this film to save it from being totally irredeemable. Like many biopics, the film feels like a vehicle for its central performance, and Chastain certainly delivers. But this film simply doesn’t work as a vehicle for one performance because, as I said earlier, it’s the story of several craven people surrounding one exceptionally craven liar, grifter and abuser, all of whom go along for the ride until the walls close in and they all throw the lunatic in charge under the bus. This story is not biopic material, and as noble a failure as this film might be, it is a failure nonetheless.