Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The new movie, starring Jessica Chastain as the influential televangelist, tells an outlandish story. How much is true?

Tammy Faye Bakker in a white dress and Jessica Chastain as Bakker in pink robe.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Miliman/AFP via Getty Images and Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios.

During Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign for president, when Republicans’ flirtation with evangelicals flowered into a full-blown romance, this unholy alliance was bolstered by televangelists like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson, who used the emerging technology of cable and satellite channels to broaden their outreach without the aid of traditional broadcasters. Only one woman was part of this magic circle, becoming prominent enough that, as with Elvis, no last name was required: Tammy Faye Bakker, who with her husband, Jim, spearheaded two of the longest-running and most popular evangelical television shows, The PTL Club and The 700 Club. Tammy Faye was a departure from the norm not only because of her gender but also because she wanted to keep the movement out of partisan politics and eschewed the Christian right’s judgmental condemnation of alternative lifestyles for a more inclusive approach. This unlikely allyship, plus a penchant for over-the-top hair, makeup, outfits, and décor—not to mention a Judy Garland–esque struggle to keep performing despite a growing dependency on prescription drugs—turned Tammy Faye into an unlikely gay icon, so much so that World of Wonder, the team behind RuPaul’s Drag Race, made a 2000 documentary about her called The Eyes of Tammy Faye narrated by none other than Ru himself.

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Now the documentary has spawned a feature film bearing the same title, directed by Michael Showalter and starring Jessica Chastain as Tammy and Andrew Garfield as Jim. Below, we’ve consulted the Bakkers’ own accounts plus decades of independent reporting to separate out the reality from the dramatic embellishment.

The Permanent Makeup

When we first see Tammy Faye, she is having makeup applied even though she has, as she confirms, permanent lip liner, eyebrows, and eyeliner tattooed on. She claims she has never been photographed without her enormous fake eyelashes. All of this is true. Jim J. Bullock, who co-hosted a short-lived 2005 talk show with Bakker (who had remarried and was by then known as Tammy Faye Messner), recalled that when it was suggested that Tammy remove her makeup just for a minute as part of a makeover segment, she refused, declaring, with unexpected self-insight, “a clown never takes off his makeup.”

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In a 2003 interview, Messner confirmed that she had permanent makeup applied. “I tattooed around my eyes because I line them anyway,” she said. “I tattooed my eyebrows on because they were gone from pulling them out so much when I was a little girl. … The only thing I wish I wouldn’t have done was the lining of my lips. … It felt like fire. I thought, man, I don’t want to go to hell after that.”

Two TV screens showing men in blue suits talking straight to the camera.
The scene where Tammy Faye brings on HIV-positive gay pastor Steve Pieters (Randy Havens) is pulled straight from real life. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HelenofIrvine/YouTube and Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios.

Jim Gives Up Rock ’n’ Roll for God

After Jim and Tammy meet at Bible college and fall in love, Jim tells her he wanted to be a radio DJ and loved Fats Domino and Little Richard. But then as a high school senior, he was in a car with a girl singing along to Fats on the radio when he ran over a little boy who was seriously injured. He promised God that if the boy recovered, he would give up rock ’n’ roll and devote his life to spreading the word.

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This chimes with the account Bakker gives in his 1996 autobiography, I Was Wrong, but his version of events, according to the 1989 reporting in the Chicago Tribune, is not entirely truthful. The accident happened two years before he said it did, when he was 16, and he was in a car with his cousin George, not a girl. Friends and relations do not recall a dramatic conversion or a sudden renunciation of rock ’n’ roll. It wasn’t until the following October, when Bakker was conducting religious rallies aimed at teens, that he started telling his friends he wanted to become a traveling evangelist.

The Providential New Car

Jim and Tammy are traveling on the evangelical rally circuit. One day they come out of their motel to find their Cadillac is gone. Jim says it has been stolen, although there is the possibility it has been repossessed for nonpayments. In any case, they appear stranded but fortuitously enough another guest emerges from his room just at that moment to tell them how much he enjoyed their ministry the evening before and offers to introduce them to his friend Pat Robertson at a local TV station.

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In reality, the Bakkers were in Virginia towing the trailer they lived in when it slipped its hitch and crashed, damaging their Cadillac as well. At a prayer rally that night, Jim wept as he described their plight, so moving a couple from Charlotte that they offered to replace the Bakkers’ clothes and car, suggesting a Chevrolet or Ford. Bakker, however, said he’d like a Lincoln like the one the man was driving. The new car never materialized. In any event, the Bakkers were hired in 1966 by Robertson to host a program aimed at children and later to co-host The 700 Club for his Christian Broadcasting Network.

Jim’s Face-Lift

A silver-haired man in a button-down shirt, opened a few buttons, and Andrew Garfield as Bakker in a light-colored suit holding a white cat on his lap.
Jim Bakker and Andrew Garfield as Bakker. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Miliman/AFP via Getty Images and Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios.
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By 1981, the Bakkers are co-hosts of the wildly successful PTL Club and raking it in. Their relationship, however, is deteriorating. Jim finds Tammy constantly irritating, while Tammy is hurt by Jim’s coldness and feels bored and isolated by having to give up work, at his insistence, during her pregnancy. She visits the set and is distressed to see Jim and his chief aide Richard Fletcher laughing at her as well as enthusiastically roughhousing on the floor. While Jim is being made up for the camera, he alludes in passing to some small plastic surgery he’s had done.

Bakker’s former bodyguard, Don Hardister, told the IRS in 1987 that Bakker had had “a complete face-lift, with the eyes, under the chin, the ears” in 1982 and that his personal assistant, David Taggart, also had some work done at PTL’s expense.

Tammy’s “Affair”

Neglected by Jim, Tammy finds herself drawn to Keanu lookalike and music producer Gary Paxton, whom Jim has brought from Nashville to help Tammy record gospel music. Unlike Jim, he believes in her talent and compassion as well as telling her she’s beautiful (even at 8 months’ pregnant) and she is tempted to stray. But after they share a kiss, she is so mortified her water breaks.

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Messner did indeed work with producer Paxton in Nashville. What is left out of the film is Paxton’s wife, Karen, who told the Los Angeles Times that Tammy Faye “was in love with Gary, or thought she was, and she knew I knew it.” However, it was a one-sided romance. Paxton might have been a sympathetic ear, but he had no romantic interest in Tammy. And far from scuttling off when Bakker sent him packing from Tammy’s hospital room (an invented episode), when the evangelist phoned Paxton at the studio to accuse him of having an affair with Tammy, the musician replied (according to Karen Paxton) “you short sonuvabitch, come on down here to Nashville and I’ll pound you in the ground.”

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Paxton himself was far more interesting than the laidback hunk the movie depicts. At only 17, he recorded his first million-selling record and married the first of his four wives around this time (she was 14), before producing ’60s novelty hits like “Alley Oop,” “Monster Mash,” and the Association’s “Along Comes Mary.” After a decade of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll (twice landing in mental institutions due to substance abuse) and being shot by hit men allegedly hired by a disgruntled singer, Paxton was born again and was soon in the bosom of the PTL fold, writing theme songs for The PTL Club and Tammy’s House Party until Bakker blackballed him from PTL world.

Jessica Hahn

After Jim tearfully confesses to Jerry Falwell and other leading evangelists that the newspapers are about to reveal that he had a one-night stand with a 21-year-old church secretary named Jessica Hahn and that the $200,000 in hush money he has given her came from PTL donors earmarked for other purposes, the minister tells him to take a step back. Falwell offers to step in as an interim head of PTL.

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Considering what a big scandal the Hahn affair was at the time, she barely features in the film. The exposure of a leading “Moral Majority” figure’s feet of clay was a gift to Saturday Night Live and other comedy programs. The liaison was orchestrated by Fletcher (who is actually John Wesley Fletcher, not Richard Fletcher), who invited Hahn, a fan of The PTL Club, to Florida, where Bakker was doing a telethon, telling her she would meet Bakker and babysit his children. Instead she was ushered into Bakker’s hotel room. “It’s like somebody walks into the room like Jim Bakker when you’re in your 20s and you’re watching him every day (on TV),” she said. “It’s like ‘Oh my God, this is like God walked into the room. I can’t say no,’ ” she recalled.

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Seven years later, Bakker offered his own “I’m the victim here” version of events, declaring, “I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and then-colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate,” and claiming he only did it to make his wife jealous and win her back.

Hahn dismissed this in 2017. “You came into a hotel room and you had sex with me. I didn’t push you away, but you had sex with me. No, you weren’t set up by a female confederate. You begged another preacher to get you a woman.”

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Before Tammy Faye died of cancer in 2007, the two women reconciled over the phone. “She had the biggest heart,” Hahn recalled. “She goes, ‘Jessica, if I were with you right now, I’d hug you.’ And I just died inside. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what she had to go through.’ I felt so ashamed—how dare I?”

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A white-haired man in glasses and a tuxedo and Vincent D’Onofrio as Falwell in a beige suit and glasses.
Jerry Falwell and Vincent D’Onofrio as Falwell. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images and Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios.

Jim’s Alleged Affairs With Male Employees

To consolidate his position as president of PTL, Falwell not only reveals Bakker’s financial misconduct but says he has had homosexual relationships.

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Bakker has always denied he had any sexual encounters with other men and the truth remains very much a “he said, he said” matter, although more than a few men, many of them current or former employees, have said that they either witnessed or took part in same-sex affairs with Bakker. Once again, Fletcher was at the center of the trouble, stating in the wake of the Hahn scandal that he had had a sexual relationship with Bakker and the next year repeating the assertions in greater detail in Penthouse. He also called a Charlotte reporter on the religion beat anonymously in 1983 to assert that David Taggart was his boss’s lover as well as production assistant.

The rumors surfaced again in 1987 when Hardister, Bakker’s former security guard, asserted that at least four male former PTL employees told him they warded off Bakker’s sexual advances, saying, “The situations involved Jim trying to touch them.”

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When a federal grand jury looked into whether ministry money was paid in exchange for sexual favors as part of its investigation into the 24 charges of fraud against Bakker arising from his overselling occupancy in the hotel at Heritage USA, the PTL’s “Christian Disneyland,” the PTL’s former director of creative television told the grand jury he had had sex with Bakker.

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Bakker denied under oath that he had ever had a homosexual relationship but in his autobiography went so far as to maintain that he was “very confused” about his sexuality, the result, he said, of being molested by a male member of his family’s church at 11.

Tammy Faye’s Segment on Penile Implants

On her own show, Tammy moves away from theological matters to discuss topics ranging from cooking fudge to penile implants.

Tammy did in fact feature a segment on penile implants on Christian television. “We got all kinds of mail,” she told TV Guide, “the most ever in the history of PTL. But a lot of it was people wanting the pamphlet on the penile implants.”

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