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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The strange life of Tammy Faye Bakker

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 7, 2021 – This film about Tammy Faye, and her notoriety as the wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, is a nuanced portrait of a woman who achieved the American Dream, then fell from grace, but never gave up.

I, of course, was familiar with the broad outlines of the sensational news story of the fall of the Bakkers that dominated the headlines for months in the late 1980s. There is a temptation to engage in schadenfreude when somebody gets prosecuted for turning religion into a tax-free get-rich-quick scheme. This has happened often enough to taint the whole televised and megachurch religion industry.

This biographical drama, however, doesn't do that. It treats the Bakkers with some respect, and it shows that their motives were not as simple as most assume. Rather than portraying religion as a scam, this movie is more about ambition, combined with the American Dream, fostering corruption. This movie is based on a documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.

Tammy Faye, played by Jessica Chastain, who also produced this film, is shown as a young girl, Tammy Faye LaValley (played by child actor Chandler Head) who is excluded from church because her mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones of “Boy Erased”) is divorced. Her mother is allowed into the Pentecostal church only because she is the only member of the congregation who can play the piano.

Tammy Faye is finally accepted into the congregation in a dramatic scene where she lays on the floor of the church in front of the congregation, convulsing, speaking in tongues and urinating. The congregation is impressed, and accepts her as a member. One could say this is Tammy Faye's first experience with religion as performance art.

The story skips ahead to Bible college, where she meets fellow student Jim Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield of “Hacksaw Ridge”) who preaches the gospel of prosperity. The two have a passionate affair, get married in 1961 and are kicked out of college. They move in with Tammy Faye's mother, who disapproves of the marriage and the couple's plans to become itinerate preachers.

On the very day their car is repossessed by creditors, an opportunity to become televangelists for Pat Robertson at a local TV station presents itself. God works in mysterious ways. The couple's popular TV ministry led to the founding of the long-running 700 Club show, but Jim Bakker wanted his own Christian broadcasting network. He then established the PTL (Praise the Lord) Network, which grew to become even larger than Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

As Bakker's success grew, his ambitions grew even larger. He built Heritage USA, a retreat and theme park that became one of the most popular in the U.S. Bakker wanted to build a theme park that resembled Jerusalem, so that people could see the sights of the City of Jerusalem without having to travel to the Middle East.

But Bakker's financing of all this was fishy. He was using funds from one project to finance the next project. He needed Tammy Faye's help, and her sex appeal, to persuade builder Roe Messner (played by Sam Jaeger) to go along with his schemes. Tammy Faye would later marry Messner.

In addition to harassment from debt collectors, Bakker was also having problems because of a rape accusation from PTL secretary, Jessica Hahn, and subsequent hush money payments to her from PTL funds. Investigations revealed that the Bakkers had used church funds to enhance their opulent lifestyle. This led to the downfall of the Bakkers.

Around this same time Tammy Faye (she released 16 albums between 1970 and 1996) is shown having an affair with successful songwriter and record producer Gary S. Paxton (Mark Wystrach of “Scavengers”). Jim Bakker finds out about the affair and has Paxton removed from PTL.

This is where Paxton exits the story, but in real life around this time, two men were hired by someone to attack Paxton, and he almost died from three gunshot wounds in the attack. Who hired those two men to attack Paxton, and why? Paxton's colorful story would make a great movie in its own right. Both Paxton and Tammy Faye denied they ever had an affair, for what that is worth.

Evangelist Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio of “The Magnificent Seven”) agrees to take over PTL from the Bakkers, who were to get annual salaries and benefits in return. Then Falwell reneges on the deal, prompting Tammy Faye to ask her husband, “How could you have trusted people like that?” That is the funniest line in the movie.

Tammy Faye, her husband and Tammy Faye's parents were all evicted from PTL properties, and stripped of their possessions purchased with PTL money. Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison for mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, but served only five years, thanks in part to celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Bakker later would restart the PTL Club.

Tammy Faye would continue her crusade for gay rights (in the movie this drives Falwell crazy) right up to the time of her death in 2007, after an 11 year battle with cancer. This movie portrays Tammy Faye in a sympathetic light, and that will probably drive some viewers crazy. Even Jim Bakker comes across as not all bad.

Both of the infamous Bakkers are portrayed as people of faith, but also ambitious people who wanted a life of luxury. They weren't too picky about how they got those luxuries. It is easy to criticize them, particularly if you don't come from a life of poverty, or if you are one of the people who donated your hard-earned money for worthy causes, only find out later the money was used to fund their lavish lifestyle.

I have always had a certain amount of admiration for people who can make money from the gullibility of other people, particularly those who exploit the greed of other people. The Bakkers did this, to a certain extent, selling their patrons on the idea that if you gave money to them, in return you would get even more money, or the equivalent of it, from God. It is an idea born not of Christianity, but of consumerism, greed and capitalism.

A ministry of Christian prosperity seems like a more positive thing than the ministry of “owning the liberals,” the anti-gay, anti-diversity, anti-abortion, anti-sacrifice, anti-science, anti-democratic, divisive, us-against-them message of many evangelical ministries, which are more about exclusion than inclusion. Of course, it only seems that way on the glitzy, feel-good surface of Christian prosperity.

In the end, what Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker represent is the pursuit of the American dream. There are certain parallels between these two and Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg in that they are all selling a product, and a vision to go with it. The real goal, however, is not the vision, rather it is to part consumers from their money, one way or another.

Whatever the Bakkers really believed in, the pursuit of fame and money became the driving force in their lives. Jim Bakker seems to have pursued money by any means necessary. That, and his own moral shortcomings, led to his downfall. Though Tammy Faye seems to have kept out of the financial details of the PTL operation, she was clearly an ambitious person too, and she enjoyed luxury.

This movie is a case study, mainly of Tammy Faye, but also of Jim Bakker. Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield both give strong performances in this film, along with Cherry Jones, who plays the one character (Jessica's mother) who seems to have the best grasp of reality in the midst of the turbulent, insane situation that Jim and Tammy Faye got themselves into. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2021 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]