Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story behind The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an upcoming biopic starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield.
The rise and fall of two of the most famous televangelists in American history. That is the premise for the upcoming biographical drama, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The film, based on a 2000 documentary of the same name, stars Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, who lost their business empire after a series of crimes and scandals.
Obviously, the film, directed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer), is based on true events. The Eyes of Tammy Faye will debut next month at the Toronto International Film Festival, and be released for the general public in the United States on September 17, 2021. To help you prepare for the film, here is a look at the real scandals and people that brought down a media empire.
Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker became famous in the 1970s as pioneer televangelists. The two met while students in 1960 and soon began traveling the road together as ministers. The documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye notes that such work was common in the United States at the time, and the Bakkers were operating in the tradition of ministers like Oral Roberts.
After struggling to make a living while on the road, they were invited by Pat Robertson (played in the film by Gabriel Olds), another well-known televangelist, to host a show on the Christian Broadcast Network, then still in its infancy. The Bakkers had found success in their work by using puppets to explore and explain Christianity, and Robertson wanted the two to host a children’s show for the network. They agreed on the condition that Jim could also host a late-night show. Robertson, as detailed in the documentary, agreed. Jim then became the host of The 700 Club, a syndicated program that remains on the air today. However, according to Tammy Faye, Robertson then wanted the spotlight for himself and took over the show. Robertson hosts the show to this day and is known for his history of bigoted comments.
The Bakkers then left CBN and helped launch the Trinity Broadcasting Network. However, they were soon pushed out of that operation too. As Rev. Mel White says in the documentary:
“Jim and Tammy started almost everything that is now powerful in religious telecasting. But as soon as they got it built, like at TBN, as soon as they got people watching, as soon as they got the audience captivated, as soon as they began to get power, they were kind of let go.”
A TV Empire Of Their Own
In 1974, the Bakkers launched the PTL Satellite Network. They hosted the network’s marquee show, The PTL Club, from 1974 to 1987. PTL stands for “Praise the Lord.”
As the show and the Bakkers’ reach grew, they began to expand their empire. Tammy Faye became known for her voice and released more than a dozen gospel albums in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1978, they founded Heritage USA, a theme park dubbed the Christian Disney World, in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The Bakkers believed that Christianity should be fun, a view that harkened back to their early days of puppeteering. They welcomed Christians of all denominations into their church. And unlike other Evangelical leaders, including her husband, Tammy Faye supported the LGBTQ+ community.
“Gay men came to embrace [Tammy Faye] as a camp figure, making her the subject of gender-bending look-alike contests. She embraced them as well,” her New York Times obituary notes. “She began attending gay pride events, and in 1996, she became the co-host of a syndicated television talk show with Jim J. Bullock, an openly gay actor.”
And as Out recently wrote:
“The trailer for The Eyes of Tammy Faye even shows moments from Bakker’s history-making interview with AIDS activist Steve Pieters, played by Randy Havens. Pieters was a gay Christian, and when Tammy Faye interviewed him on The PTL Club, it was a watershed moment for AIDS visibility.”
The Empire Collapses
According to Tammy Faye’s New York Times obituary, at its peak, The PTL Club reached thirteen million households. And Heritage USA grew to 2,300 acres and a value of more than $125 million. But then it all collapsed.
In 1987, Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary, said that Jim Bakker had sexually assaulted her in 1980. The ministry had paid Hahn $200,000 to remain quiet. Bakker later said he believed it was consensual.
“The way Jessica Hahn later described her sexual encounter with Jim Bakker sounds very much like rape,” John Wigger, a professor at the University of Missouri, told ABC News in 2019. “She later told me that she doesn’t really feel comfortable talking about it in those terms, but she also clearly didn’t believe that it was consensual.” Wigger is the author of the book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire.
After the news broke, Jim stepped away from his role as the head of PTL. He ceded control to Jerry Falwell (played in the film by Vincent D’Onofrio), another evangelist with a history of hateful comments. And just like the Bakkers’ past endeavors, Falwell pushed them out of the business they founded. From ABC News:
“At a press conference in May 1987, Falwell said the Bakkers were no longer fit to lead PTL, accusing Jim Bakker of being secretly gay, and claimed that Tammy Faye Bakker made a long list of demands in order for them to give up plans to come back to PTL that included large annual salaries, two cars, a maid for one year and a furnished house on a lake, among other things.”
The government then began investigating PTL’s finances and brought criminal charges against Jim. In 1988, he was indicted on twenty-three counts of fraud and one count of conspiracy and sentenced to forty-five years in jail.
In 1992, the Bakkers divorced. Tammy Faye married Roy Messner, a megachurch designer, and changed her last name. She spent her final years continuing to sing, appearing on television, and rediscovering her relationship with God. And, as the documentary depicts, she spoke regularly about her years-long battle with drug addiction. At one point in the documentary, Messner says her only remaining addiction is Diet Coke. Her life became the inspiration for the 2007 Broadway production Big Tent: The Tammy Faye Bakker Musical. She died that same year at the age of sixty-five.
After an appeals hearing, Jim Bakker’s sentence was reduced to eight years, and he was paroled in 1994. He then resumed his work as a televangelist and continues to this day. Last month, a judge ordered him to pay more than $156,000 in restitution after “falsely claiming a health supplement could cure COVID-19.”
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