The Perils of Blind Faith

It’s one thing to be an ardent, committed supporter, but it’s something else entirely to be an unwittingly blind follower. The former reflects a passionate faith and a stern resolve, while the latter is an unquestioned abrogation of one’s personal power. But certainly one can readily make the distinction between those two scenarios, right? Don’t be so sure. Such are the circumstances that characterize the life of a once-powerful and respected television personality as seen in the new, fact-based film biography, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (web site, trailer).

From almost the time she was born in International Falls, Minnesota in 1942, Tammy Faye LaValley (Chandler Head) sought love, recognition and acceptance. That was hard coming, though, given the shame that was heaped on her by her own mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), a divorcee who was so embarrassed by her status that she projected it onto her daughter, claiming that Tammy Faye was a reminder of her own “sordid” past. Rachel was so dogmatic about the disgrace of being divorced, in fact, that she wouldn’t even allow Tammy Faye to attend the church where she played piano for fear that her presence in the congregation would serve as a reminder to the parishioners that she was a “fallen woman” (this in spite of the fact that Rachel was married at the time her daughter was born and that she was now wed to her second husband, Fred (Fredric Lehne)). Tammy Faye, meanwhile, desperately wanted to attend services so that she could feel the love of Jesus, the kind of unconditional acceptance that she wasn’t receiving at home. And, when she finally made an appearance at church against her mother’s instructions, she underwent a religious experience that filled her with what had been missing all along, an event that parishioners looked upon as a miracle while Rachel gazed on in consternation.

This experience would come to define Tammy Faye’s character for the remainder of her life. Having now received the acceptance she had long been looking for, it was easy for her to return the favor in kind to others, a belief that essentially enabled her to love everyone. This outlook thus led an adolescent Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) to her calling as a charismatic disciple of Christ, enrolling as a student at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. It’s there where she met an aspiring young evangelist named Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who preached a gospel that maintained Jesus wanted His followers to live lives of abundance and prosperity, not poverty and suffering. This uplifting message captivated the impressionable young Tammy Faye, and she was eager to follow Jim in what he was setting out to do, a goal made easier after they married in 1961.

As rising stars in the televangelism community, the Bakkers – Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain, standing with child) and Jim (Andrew Garfield, seated right of Tammy Faye) – find themselves in the midst of a group of religious power brokers as seen in the new film biography, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios.

Before long, Jim and Tammy Faye took their ministry on the road, holding prayer meetings across the American South. Jim preached his message, while Tammy Faye sang and staged Christian puppet shows for children. After several years, they took their message to television, becoming long-time fixtures on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the religious TV empire founded by evangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), serving as hosts of The 700 Club, a Christian talk show, and Jim and Tammy, a popular children’s show.

As the Bakkers’ reputation began rising, they became part of an inner circle of powerful evangelists, most notably Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), head of the Moral Majority and co-founder of Liberty University. Falwell unapologetically promoted a “traditional values” agenda that was pro-life, pro-family, anti-gay and segregationist in nature. And, given the clout that leaders like Robertson and Falwell commanded, Jim seemed willing to go along with their views if it would help to advance his cause. However, given Tammy Faye’s willingness to embrace all souls, she was reluctant to follow suit; she couldn’t abide by such close-minded thinking.

This marked perhaps the first time when Tammy Faye didn’t blindly follow her husband’s wishes. But, rather than argue with him about their differences in opinion, she instead encouraged Jim to strike out on his own and build his own network, which he subsequently did with the founding of The PTL Club (Praise The Lord) in 1974. This glitzy Christian news and entertainment program featured a variety of guests, provided a showcase for Tammy Faye’s musical talents and put in place a platform for Jim to preach his prosperity gospel. And, as their own prosperity soared during the ’70s and ’80s, Tammy Faye once again blindly went along with whatever Jim wanted, even when it wasn’t necessarily in her own best interests, both personally and professionally.

With her world gone crazy, televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) retires to her bed with the help of her cocktail of Diet Coke and Ativan in director Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios.

Despite widely held contentions that the Bakkers were doing great charitable work through their ministry, there were also allegations about where the money was coming from for all of these undertakings – not to mention the funding of their increasingly lavish personal lifestyle. Tammy Faye added her own fuel to this fire by expressing views that ran counter to what most evangelicals held dear. This became most apparent during her emotional on-air interview with Steve Pieters (Randy Havens), an openly gay man suffering from AIDS. Tammy Faye said it was just another expression of her love for everyone, a view that ran afoul of the likes of Falwell, whom Jim was leaning on increasingly to help bail him out of the growing controversy.

When events finally exploded, Tammy Faye had become an emotional wreck, strung out on a cocktail of Diet Coke and Ativan. What’s more, because of Jim’s financial misdeeds, she was facing the loss of virtually all of her wealth and material possessions. And, to make matters worse, claims that Jim had engaged in homosexual affairs arose, shattering whatever remaining romantic feelings she had left for him and leading to divorce (and jail time for her husband) not long thereafter.

After such a dramatic rise, Tammy Faye took quite a hard – and very public – fall. She became a walking punchline, lampooned on many TV talk shows and sketch comedy programs. Her signature heavy facial makeup and teary, emotional speaking delivery provided ample fodder for jokes on everything from tee shirts to newspaper cartoons. Recovering from that kind of humiliation seemed almost impossible. But the resilient Tammy Faye sought to redeem herself, no matter what it took. Most of all, she wanted to continue to let others know that she loved them and that she would do so no matter how much vitriol was flung in her direction. It was a lesson she learned early on in life, and it was one she was not about to give up now.

As they increasingly come under fire, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Andrew Garfield, Jessica Chastain, respectively) defend themselves in a re-created interview from the ABC News program Nightline with Ted Koppel (back to camera) in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios.

Even though Tammy Faye was subjected to considerable criticism for what happened, both from holier-than-thou conservative constituents and rigidly self-righteous liberal opponents, the film reveals that much of what occurred actually stemmed from guilt by association. By implicitly and naïvely trusting her husband, rarely questioning his actions and willfully looking away when convenient, she ended up in the middle of controversies that were largely not of her own doing, sadly making her a pitiable but sympathetic character.

This is not to suggest, however, that Tammy Faye didn’t err along the way. Those missteps were generally attributable to her vast naïvete, a seemingly boundless Pollyanna attitude fueled by beliefs designed to bring it into being. And that’s crucial to understanding why events unfolded as they did, for our thoughts, beliefs and intents drive the process of what materializes in our reality. Tammy Faye may have never heard of this school of thought, but her experience certainly shows that she was proficient at practicing its principles.

As the conditions of her childhood show, the obvious lack of love and acceptance that Tammy Faye experienced went a long way into shaping her views about life. She clearly didn’t want to subject others to what she endured, so, when she finally found what was missing through her connection with Jesus, she wanted to freely share that joy and fulfillment with everybody. What’s more, when she met her future husband, who seemingly held a comparable outlook, she gave herself over to him and his plans for their life together. The beliefs driving this outcome were in place and making it happen.

Noble as these notions may be, however, they weren’t without pitfalls. By treating such beliefs and their associated undertakings as implicit absolutes, she stepped into some major traps. For starters, these were ultimately disempowering acts. She ended up surrendering her personal power, regardless of whether she had consciously intended to do so, a commodity that can be difficult to retrieve once lost. On top of this, given her unwavering loyalty and indiscriminately trusting nature, she was willing to follow those whom she believed in, no matter what that may have involved. And that, as the film shows, set her up for trouble.

In a move that infuriated many conservative Christians, televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain, seated) speaks with Steve Pieters (Randy Havens, pictured in TV monitor), an openly gay man suffering from AIDS, in an effort to demonstrate her love for all people, an affront to the “traditional values” agenda, in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios.

These circumstances illustrate the clear distinction of having faith from practicing blind faith. While there’s much to be said for the former, the latter can lead us down a slippery slope from which recovery can prove to be difficult if not seemingly impossible. Retracting our lost power in these situations is often problematic, partly because we may have come to believe that such a goal is unattainable or that it requires considerable effort to rebuild, which may not be adequate enough in light of what we’re up against.

So what are we to do? Under circumstances like these, the wisest course is not to fall into such traps in the first place. We can do that by making adjustments in our outlooks up front, particularly when it comes to engaging our power of discernment. While adopting qualified beliefs can cause issues, so, too, can adopting them in unqualified, unquestioned forms. Doing so almost suggests an attitude of not caring, as if we couldn’t be bothered to take the time to examine what should be ruled out before recklessly embracing those notions. Such an approach can lead to the practice of following a course at all costs, one in which we ignore what other conditions (including unintended side effects) might accompany our creative initiatives. Tammy Faye, unfortunately, learned this the hard way.

Still, this is not to imply that all is lost either. Redemption and resilience are possible, provided that we believe in those possibilities. Tammy Faye sought this in the wake of her widely publicized downfall, and she managed to bounce back. For example, when Jim lost interest in Tammy Faye and his alleged same-sex dalliances surfaced, she drew others to her to make up for this, such as music producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach) and construction contractor Roe Messner (Sam Jaeger). She knew what it was like to go without love and what it was like to fill that void, skills – backed by suitable beliefs – that she knew how to implement when needed. These undertakings employed those aforementioned qualities of redemption and resilience, and she was able to draw upon the beliefs underlying them – and even transfer them to other aspects of life – when needed. That represented a significant change from the blind faith she practiced earlier in her life and set an impressive example for all of us to follow when we need to make comparable alterations in our own lives.

Always ready with a song, televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain, left) performs to help take the edge off a difficult disclosure involving her and husband Jim (Andrew Garfield, right) in the new biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios.

Rebounding from a humiliating fall from grace may seem like an overwhelming task. But, as director Michael Showalter’s biopic illustrates, turnarounds are not out of the question. The film addresses the many trials and tribulations of the protagonist’s life, most of which are depicted quite capably, though there are a few segments where Jim and Tammy Faye are portrayed more like caricatures than characters, as well as a few others that could have been better focused. Nevertheless, despite these pitfalls, this offering features award-worthy performances by Chastain and Garfield as the celebrated TV couple and Jones as Tammy Faye’s hard-edged, tough-loving mother. It also presents a refreshingly balanced look at the protagonist’s life, poking fun with rapier wit and high camp when needed, but also sincerely painting Ms. Bakker in a surprisingly and deservedly justified sympathetic light. This latest release in the film biography genre may not be perfect, but then neither was Tammy Faye’s notoriously over-the-top makeup routine. In either case, though, that doesn’t mean this release won’t bring a smile – or mascara-laden tear – to your face. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” has played at several film festivals and is now in general theatrical release.

Going along with what others want without taking a critical look at what’s proposed can be a perilous course. Throwing support behind individuals and causes we care about is certainly fulfilling and ennobling. However, when we cross the line from loyal advocate to unwitting stooge, we veer into troubling territory from which escape can be difficult. That’s why it’s so important that we place faith in ourselves, for it enables us to make valuable distinctions that could end up saving our lives and reputations before all is lost – and perhaps unattainable to retrieve.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Welcome to the Fall Movie Season 

With the beginning of the fall movie season, we’re starting to get glimpses of potential awards contenders, as well as what’s to come over the next few months. Find out what’s in store in theaters, online and at upcoming film festivals on the next edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in Thursday September 30 at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live by clicking here for a lively discussion of releases worth seeing. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!

Fusing Vision and Perseverance

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, it would be easy to throw in the towel. At the same time, though, when we also know that what we wish to bring into being is something we must do, such awareness compels us to strive ever forward, regardless of the effort and cost involved. But how can that be accomplished? It helps to have a vision and the persistence necessary to flesh it out, qualities depicted in the inspiring sports documentary, “The Ice King” (web site, trailer).

John Curry may not be a household name, but his impact was certainly considerable. After winning the British and European figure skating championships, he went on to make a name for himself as the gold medal winner at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, followed by the sport’s world championship, his four titles solidifying his status as a grand slam champ of the sport. As impressive as this accomplishment was, however, Curry’s greatest achievements were yet to come.

In a sport that was strongly characterized by pronounced athleticism at the time, Curry sought to turn it on its ear by making it more artistically expressive. He envisioned supplementing the sport’s high-flying jumps with graceful, fluid movements featuring dramatic, emotive gestures, an attempt aimed at adding distinctive flowing lines to the routines. While those qualities were considered acceptable for women, it was not looked upon as favorably in the men’s competitions, largely because, in the less tolerant ways of the time, such artistry was frowned upon as less than masculine and conveyed the “wrong” impression about the sport’s participants. Curry, however, who had aspired to be a dancer in his youth – an ambition looked down upon by his strict, close-minded father, Joseph – was determined to introduce it in hopes that it would help to reshape the sport and take it to a new level.

British figure skater John Curry, 1976 Olympic gold medalist and world champion, revolutionized a sport once totally dependent on athleticism by incorporating artistic expressionism, as depicted in director James Erskine’s excellent documentary, “The Ice King.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Curry worked hard for years to bring this about. Under the guidance of coaches Carlo and Christa Fassi, he honed his skills and incorporated these elements into his routines. And, by 1976, when he was ready to pursue Olympic gold, he had perfected his craft, permanently changing the nature of men’s competitive figure skating.

But Curry saw the Olympic title as a springboard to greater things. In preparing to turn professional, he was not content to follow the path taken by many of his figure skating peers, most of whom signed on with touring ice shows in which they were cast as performers of kitschy, cartoonish routines. As Curry put it, after years of serious artistic training, he could not envision himself putting on an ice skating routine dressed up in a Bugs Bunny costume. He wanted his professional career to reflect the sentiments that he had been longing to bring to the sport.

Curry thus established his own skating troupe, one in which he worked on developing routines that incorporated classic dance movements choreographed by such notables as Peter Martins and Twyla Tharp. His programs featured flamboyant costuming and diverse music from a variety of genres, including tangos, modern electronic compositions, and classical pieces from the likes of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. In this way, he sought to bring the artistry to professional figure skating that fulfilled his dreams and was noticeably absent from the popular touring ice shows. This attempt at elevating the nature of the art drew widespread attention from skating peers, many of whom flocked to the opportunity to join a troupe such as this. Curry was joined by such noteworthy skating professionals as Dorothy Hamill, 1976 Olympic gold medalist and world champ, and JoJo Starbuck, bronze medalist at the 1971 and 1972 world championships.

The new look that Curry gave to figure skating drew raves, not only from fans of the sport, but also from the arts community, who relished the fresh, innovative approach he was infusing into both the skating and dance worlds. However, despite the critical acclaim his company’s performances received, the troupe experienced ongoing issues with logistics and finances. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to stage the kinds of productions that Curry wanted to create. And these issues added to long-simmering problems that the skating star had been wrestling with.

Classic style merged with emotive gestures characterized the figure skating of Olympic and world champion John Curry as detailed in the heartfelt 2018 documentary “The Ice King,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

During much of his upbringing and young adulthood, Curry suffered from depression. Much of that involved his homosexuality, a secret he generally kept closely guarded. Nevertheless, it was an underlying source of stress in a number of his relationships, such as that with his father, who suspected his son’s orientation and did whatever he could to dissuade anything that might “encourage” it, such as his interest in dance. In fact, as Curry put it, his father was agreeable to his son’s participation in skating because “at least that was a sport,” unlike dancing, which carried other stereotypical connotations. And, then, to make matters worse, the elder Curry compounded circumstances by committing suicide.

As Curry tentatively began exploring his sexual leanings, he began a relationship with athlete Heinz Wirz. Even though the romantic involvement didn’t last, Curry and Wirz remained lifelong friends and corresponded frequently. Excerpts of their letters are included as voiceovers in the film, the contents of which include telling revelations about Curry’s feelings related to his struggles with managing his sexuality and mental health, both during his days of competition and as a professional.

These issues impacted Curry’s skating endeavors, especially those related to his sexuality. In an interview before his Olympic victory, he spoke candidly about it with a reporter, who publicly outed the skater 24 hours after his win. Curry confirmed the eyebrow-raising reports shortly thereafter, a courageous move at the time. It nevertheless made him the first openly gay Olympian to come out.

Curry subsequently embraced his sexuality, but, unfortunately, he fell victim to the emerging AIDS crisis. Over the next few years, due to the financial difficulties of his troupe and his failing health, his performances trailed off and eventually stopped. As his illness progressed, he retreated into seclusion, passing on in 1994 at the age of 44.

Even though Curry’s career may have been cut short, he left a lasting legacy that changed the sport for years to come. His influence permeated skating, impacting the routines of competitors like Britain’s Robin Cousins, 1980 Olympic and world champion, and American Johnny Weir, three-time US champion and 2008 world’s bronze medalist, both of whom are interviewed in the film about how Curry inspired them. It’s rare when one individual can have such profound impact on changing the course of an art form, but Curry did that, and skating fans can thank him for that.

Flamboyant costuming enhanced the look and style of the figure skating of Olympic and world champion John Curry as told in the moving 2018 biographical documentary, “The Ice King.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

John Curry faced a number of challenges in his life, both personally and professionally, yet he managed to address many of them successfully. While these ordeals were indeed daunting, Curry summoned up the gumption to take them on. And that occurred primarily because he believed he could overcome them, despite the difficulties, especially where his own insecurities were concerned. That’s important to recognize, because our beliefs dictate how close we come to fulfilling our aspirations. Even though it’s unclear whether Curry ever heard of this notion, it’s apparent through his accomplishments that he was a master of its principles and practices.

Two qualities helped to set Curry apart. First and foremost, he was a visionary when it came to skating. He envisioned what he was trying to achieve – fusing sport and art – and then went out and did it at a time when prevailing conditions were less than conducive for doing so. Athletic and social prejudices governed what was considered acceptable, but Curry’s groundbreaking approach defied those conventions. He was taking a big chance, considering that it was unclear whether the “rebellious” nature of his routines would be embraced in a milieu where tradition persisted and change didn’t come easily.

Nevertheless, Curry came out on top in these endeavors, largely because of a second quality – perseverance. Even at those times when he may have wanted to give up – a course that could have easily been facilitated with his mental health issues – he managed to hang in and find the means to follow his dreams. When he struggled financially during his pre-Olympic training, for example, her found a willing sponsor, sports enthusiast Ed Mosler, to bankroll his efforts, including the hiring of the much-in-demand Fassis as his coaches. This enabled him to keep going at a time when it might have been just as easy to walk away.

This combination of vision and perseverance thus made it possible for Curry to live up to his own expectations. And those qualities fell into place thanks to beliefs that made their presence in his own mindset possible. Not only did they help him succeed as a competitive and professional skater, but they also empowered him to grow comfortable in his own skin personally. Allowing oneself to be openly gay at a time when many members of the LGBTQ+ community were still hidden in the recesses of their personal closets, Curry didn’t back off once his secret was revealed. He may not have been comfortable with the way this revelation came about, but he would not allow personal demons, the ghosts of his upbringing or the close-minded thinking of others to continue to hold him back. He had grown comfortable with his orientation and was not afraid to let the world know, an attitude that was surprisingly well accepted at the time and ran far afield from the experiences he underwent while growing up in the shadow of a less-than-tolerant father figure.

The impact of his visionary and persevering beliefs, in turn, made it possible for Curry to tackle another significant obstacle – overcoming his fears and limitations. If he were going to accomplish big things in his life, both professionally and personally, he could not allow these hindrances to block his path, no matter how challenging it may have been in addressing them. In his competitive skating life, for example, he could not let the attitudes of the judges scoring his routines intimidate him. He knew he would have to lay his cards on the table (or, in this case, in the ice) and let the work speak for itself, hoping that his evaluators would be able to see his routines for the bold, inventive statements that they were. Fortunately, they did, and that led to his accolades, which, in turn, enabled him to parlay his award-backed clout into the professional endeavors he went on to pursue. One achievement led to another and then to another that, ultimately and collectively, allowed Curry to persevere and eventually fulfill his vision.

Skating routines involving multiple performers were typical of the programs put on by John Curry’s artistically influenced skating troupe as depicted in director James Erskine’s 2018 documentary, “The Ice King.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Given that Curry was always progressing in his achievements, on some level, he also seemed to understand that nothing lasts forever, principles that were, again, equally applicable to his professional and personal undertakings. While Curry’s post-competition projects certainly were revolutionary in the world of professional skating, they presented their own sets of challenges that made their perpetuation difficult. Nevertheless, that did not deter him ftom carrying on, fulfilling one artistic and athletic accomplishment after another, even if they weren’t always replicated more than once.

While those accomplishments were bring fulfilled, however, they represented tremendous achievements, and Curry made the most of them, both individually and with the members of his skating troupe. He relished these attainments, immersing himself in those moments. And, in doing so, Curry embodied the principle that the point of power is in the present. Even if these moments weren’t meant to endure, they incorporated the qualities of grandeur and magnificence during the time while they existed, no matter how brief, producing memorable creations that lasted long after they were over with.

Our various manifestations represent moments of perfection in their own right, living up to their potential and yielding things of intrinsic, even if fleeting, beauty. Their importance should be underscored, though, for they also enabled the ongoing process of personal evolution, something that was quite apparent in Curry’s routines. In this way, Curry’s efforts also reflected the concept that everything is in a constant state of becoming. And, in doing so, Curry made it look effortless and inherently beautiful.

One could say that Curry’s life itself embodied the foregoing principles. He virtually disappeared from the skating stage in his mid 30s, well before what many anticipated would be a much longer professional career. And, with his death at 44, Curry, as an individual, left us at a point that many considered too soon. But, while he was here, Curry made the most of the time he had and lived up to his potential to a degree greater than many of us will ever hope to achieve. His life may have been shorter than expected, but, while he was here, he truly was the Ice King.

Curry revolutionized a sport – and later an art form – that had long been driven by sheer athleticism rather than inspired artistry. But, for all his artistic and athletic achievements, Curry also had to conquer issues that sometimes held him back throughout his life. Director James Erskine’s superb 2018 documentary comprehensively covers all aspects of Curry’s complicated life and death, incorporating a wealth of rare archive footage and featuring insightful commentary from friends, colleagues, and fellow figure skaters Robin Cousins, Johnny Weir and Dorothy Hamill, as well as past interviews with Curry himself. The film is a fitting tribute to a remarkable talent who left a tremendous legacy as a competitor, as an artist, and, above all, as an individual.

The film is available for streaming online from multiple sources. In addition, with the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics only a few months away, “The Ice King” has been showing up in special screenings in the run-up to the games. No matter how or where one sees it, though, it’s definitely worth the time.

Going for the gold is a metaphor we’re all familiar with, one that applies to more than just the Olympics. Curry applied that notion to all the ventures he undertook and found the means to make those goals possible. The example he set is one that we can all draw from in our own endeavors, regardless of the stage on which those adventures unfold. And, when armed with that kind of inspiration, there’s no telling what we might accomplish, achievements that might well enable us to skate away with medals all our own.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.