When Jessica Chastain saw the 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the actress knew she wanted to make a feature film that would give her the chance to play Tammy Faye Bakker.
Bakker, who died in 2007, was the distinctive makeup Christian television host who, along with her husband, Jim, went on to become stars of televangelist television. The couple made millions before suffering a public disgrace in the 1980s that involved prescription drug abuse, sex scandals and financial fraud that ultimately sent Jim Bakker to jail.
The film took years for Chastain, who opted for the rights in 2012 and serves as producer, to be made, but its timing seems fortuitous as the company is finally re-evaluating how we thought about people like Bakker, Monica Lewinsky. and Britney Spears. The likeable portrayal of Chastain apparently has the approval of the two Bakker children who were involved in the making of the film.
In separate phone interviews, screenwriter Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter recently discussed what made Tammy Faye a worthy subject and what shaped the choices they made in telling her story.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q What attracted you about the story?
Sylvie: I grew up obsessed with Tammy Faye Bakker and saw the documentary five times when it was released. I was developing another project with Jessica when she called me up and asked me, “Do you know Tammy Faye Bakker? I got very excited. She had a very clear vision of what this film could be.
It’s the story of a woman who fell in love with a man whom she thought shared her mission only to get him corrupted and everything collapsed and landed on her head.
I think they’re incredibly easy-to-understand characters, even though the scale of their lives isn’t.
Showalter: I love these misunderstood and excluded characters. They’re sort of questionable in terms of a moral compass, incredibly eccentric, and idiosyncratic. I also liked the period, the costumes, the hair and the colors. It was vibrant and very cinematic for me. It all made for a gripping story. And, of course, the opportunity to work with Jessica and see what she would do with the role.
Q Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears, now Tammy Faye Bakker were all women who went on to become punchlines and were vilified by society and the media – often because of a man’s bad behavior – and who are now being re-evaluated in features. feature films, television series or documentaries. Do you see this film as part of that larger shift?
Showalter: It seems to match the mood of the company; there’s that kind of math about how these women suffered from binge eating in the media.
Sylvie: It definitely fits into this narrative, but I didn’t approach it that way. I didn’t want to write a controversy. We made the conscious decision to say, “We are not here to make fun of these people. Enough of this has already happened and it never should have happened in the first place.
Q One thing that really got overlooked in the 1980s was the way she preached love and compassion to gays and AIDS patients over the objections of evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Sylvie: She wasn’t just a revolutionary in the Electric Church – very few mainstream talk shows spoke like that. In the media, AIDS and people with AIDS were feared. The mainstream media then publicly humiliated Tammy Faye Bakker, but it was she who said to hold these people in your arms.
Showalter: She was progressive in some ways. The intersection between spirituality and politics is where the problems lie. His belief system was very positive Christian principles, but there was this larger political agenda lurking in it.
Q Did she turn a blind eye to Bakker’s actions to maintain her power and lavish lifestyle or was she rightfully in the dark?
Showalter: I want people to debate what they think Tammy knew or didn’t know, I don’t have the answer. I certainly don’t think she was a conspirator. It is possible that she was perfectly ignorant. His faith was very pure.
Sylvie: If you were to ask a million people the question, you would get a million different answers. The key is the line that his mother [played by Cherry Jones] says in the movie, ‘When you follow blindly, all that you are in the end is blind.’ She followed this man, she followed this mission. She didn’t want to know so she didn’t know.
Q She lived an absurdly lavish lifestyle, which makes the accusations of greed accurate.
Sylvie: You could characterize it as greed, but it is very much in line with what they preached. They preached the doctrine of prosperity – look at the things we have, it’s proof of God’s love that we’re doing the right thing.
Q They later gave up on that thought as being wrong.
Sylvia: I can’t ask her about it, I wish I could. My job was to tell what was happening right now and what things she was telling herself to get through the day – what business was she doing in her own soul, the way we do business in our own souls to spend the day ?
Q The film shows snippets of late-night shows making jokes about him, but it doesn’t dwell on his reaction or the hurt and damage those comments could have caused.
Sylvie: I was more interested in his persistence. She took all of this incoming fire and she never really broke out. She continued her mission even though there was no audience there.
Showalter: She lost everything but held on to her positive attitude and core belief system
Q You can argue that the movie seems to leave Jim Bakker, who was convicted of various fraud charges and served 5 years in prison, easily; the postscript which does not mention recent controversies, including the settlement of a lawsuit this summer over allegations he made about a supplement he was selling to treat COVID.
Showalter: We just wanted to stay focused on Tammy. But there’s a whole different story about Jim and how you could draw a straight line from the ’70s televangelist movement to the Reagan and Bush presidencies and our current political situation.
Sylvie: There is so much about these people that we haven’t covered in a two hour film. The movie is about her and if people want to see what has become of Jim beyond that, there is a lot on the public record.