The Wall Street Journal declared 1987 “The Year of the Bimbo”. It was a year in which vitriol and condescension were heaped freely upon the women slapped with the label — considered sexy but brainless and ethically challenged.
Now, the bimbo is back — but this time, she’s not being treated as a figure of fun, but rather appreciated for her hyper-feminine mystique. She’s approached with empathy, sometimes even reverence, to the point of the term’s eager reclamation by many of the TikTok generation.
As the cries of “free Britney” have grown louder, little wonder we’ve seen a spate of revisionist histories about some of the most maligned women of the 80s and 90s — Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Princess Diana — crop up on our screens. Such works function as correctives to the misogynistic media narratives once attached to them.
In The Eyes of Tammy Faye (directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter), Jessica Chastain (Scenes From a Marriage; Molly’s Game) sets out to do just that for the pint-sized preacher of the title, duly plastered with prosthetics and hoping to maybe pick up an Oscar for her trouble.
Tammy Faye Messner achieved fame as a pioneer of televangelism alongside then-husband Jim Bakker. And yet, with her relentlessly bubbly nature, big hair and dramatic make-up, she hewed closer to Dolly Parton than the dowdy archetype of preacher’s wife.
Her inclusive personal theology, which would inspire her to reach out to the LGBT community, also made her an anomaly in the conservative Christian milieu. (“We’re all just people, made out of the same old dirt,” she chirped. “And God didn’t make any junk.”)
In 1974, Tammy and Jim (played here by Andrew Garfield, a long way from Spider-Man: No Way Home) founded the PTL Television Network — the acronym variously said to stand for “Praise the Lord” and “People that Love”. One of the first networks in the world to harness satellite technology, at its height PTL beamed pious programming into millions of homes in dozens of countries, and the Bakkers were heralded as the “Ken and Barbie” of the so-called ‘electronic church’.
Under Jim’s command, their holy empire expanded — they even launched a theme park in 1978, for a time the most popular in the United States bar Disneyland and Disneyworld — and so did their personal wealth.
Just as well the couple preached the prosperity gospel: “When Jesus calls us home, you think you’re gonna get a bonus if you make yourself miserable?” catechises a teenage Jim from the pulpit at Bible College. “God does not want us to be poor!” His professor scowls; his classmate Tammy beams.
It was in 1987 that their empire crumbled, hit by claims of fraud and the revelation of Jim’s (alleged) historical rape of Jessica Hahn — whose decision to tell her story in Playboy Magazine accompanied by a nude photo spread saw her swiftly, gleefully branded a bimbo.
That Hahn doesn’t appear in the film reflects the fealty that Chastain (who also served as one of the film’s producers) and writer Abe Sylvia have to their protagonist: the real Tammy Faye never met Hahn (though she did speak to the younger woman on the phone, not long before her passing in 2007). Indeed she only learned of her existence as the scandal broke.
As the title suggests, The Eyes of Tammy Faye wants its audience to take on Tammy’s long-lashed perspective. The blind spots are there by design — though the focus on the personal over and above grand narrative means that anyone unfamiliar with PTL history might want to do some homework afterwards.
Jim would be convicted for at least some of his crimes, but Tammy Faye would be subject to a cruel trial by media: her chipmunk cheerfulness and outré ensembles became fodder for late-night TV parody, readily portrayed with mascara-streaked face, possessed by visions of demonic raisins.
After the Bakkers’ fall from grace, Tammy Faye was reborn — praise be to God! — as a gay icon. (If her faith makes her an outlier next to the likes of Princess Di and Judy Garland, she was still a messy, glamorous woman rejected by the mainstream — that is, a perfect candidate.)
Her surprising second coming was cemented by the documentary from which Showalter’s film takes its title, released in 2000. Narrated by RuPaul and directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey — who would go on to mint their fortune with RuPaul’s Drag Race — it’s a soapy, low-budget tribute to Tammy’s resilience through a life of lofty highs and Ativan-addled lows.
That Showalter’s is a much more straight-faced take on the same material is evident from the opening scene: a sepia-tinted flashback depicting Tammy’s childhood struggle for acceptance by both her mother and the Pentecostal church to which her family belonged.
Screenwriter Sylvia wedges in some pieces of ticklish dialogue: “Do you wanna talk some more?” Tammy asks Jim. “Can you talk to God? I’m so tired,” he replies.
Showalter, for his part, seems to loosen up stylistically a little more each time a montage set to one of Tammy Faye’s greatest hits rolls around. But he’s pretty much put the kibosh on his MTV-honed comedic instincts, presumably fearing them to be so broad as to risk replicating the sins of SNL sketches past.
He reveals no great talent for drama here.
This tale of Bible-thumping American excess and eccentricity deserved someone like Todd Haynes (Carol; Velvet Goldmine) at its helm — a director with a flair for melodrama and hyperreal interiors (and who surely would’ve found a use for the homemade puppets that made Tammy so popular with kids and, later on, gays).
Both Showalter and Chastain, her performance so full of heart and soul, seem at pains to ensure that Tammy Faye be taken seriously — and with good reason — but they’ve forgotten that you can be funny without making fun, and camp without being insincere. (RuPaul would never.)
Tammy Faye was larger-than-life and a dyed-in-the-polyester iconoclast; if only this film was too.