The Eyes of Tammy Faye
With a committed and compelling lead performance by Jessica Chastain, this otherwise far-too-standard biopic explores the life of 70s and 80s American televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
January 27, 2022
Not for the first time, the eyes have it, but then they always have with Tammy Faye Bakker. Not one but two films called The Eyes of Tammy Faye have told the 70s and 80s televangelist's tale — first a 2000 documentary and now this new Jessica Chastain-starring dramatisation — and both take their monikers from one of the real-life American figure's best-known attributes. In the opening to the latest movie, the spidery eyelashes that adorn Tammy Faye's peepers are dubbed her trademark by the woman herself. They're given ample focus in this biopic, as OTT and instantly eye-grabbing as they they are, but their prominence isn't just about aesthetics and recognition. This version of The Eyes of Tammy Faye hones in on perspective, resolutely sticking to its namesake's, even when it'd be a better film if it pondered what she truly saw, or didn't.
In the path leading to her celebrity heyday and the time she was a TV mainstay, Tammy Faye's life saw plenty. It began with an unhappy childhood stained by her stern mother Rachel's (Cherry Jones, Succession) refusal to be linked to her at church, lest it remind their god-fearing Minnesotan townsfolk about the latter's sinful divorce. But young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head, The Right Stuff) still finds solace in religion, the attention that speaking in tongues mid-service brings and also the puppets she starts using as a girl. Come 1960, at bible college, her fervour and quirkiness attract fellow student Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick… Boom!), with the pair soon married even though it gets them kicked out of school. Unperturbed, she keeps seeing their calling to the lord as their way forward, first with a travelling ministry — puppets included — and then with television shows and their own Praise the Lord network.
From her mid 20s through until her late 40s, when multiple scandals spelled their downfall — involving Jim's alleged sexual assaults, as well as the misuse of funds donated to Praise the Lord by its loyal viewers — much of Tammy Faye's life was lived in the public eye, too. That gives both Chastain (The 355) and director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) copious materials to draw upon beyond the original The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and also turns their film into a glossy recreation. There's no shortage of details to convey, but that's primarily what Abe Sylvia's (Dead to Me) script is content with. Depiction doesn't equal interrogation here, and does skew closer to endorsement; Tammy Faye's outsized appearance, her makeup and outfits getting gaudier as the Bakkers' fame keeps growing, can border on parody — it's camp at the very least — but that isn't the same as asking probing questions about the movie's central figure.
Chastain serves up a performance that seems primed to delve deeper. With the exceptional Scenes From a Marriage star leading the show, the eyes don't just have it, or the hair that just keeps getting bigger, or the ostentatious clothing. In the twice Oscar-nominated actor's hands — with a third nod likely for this very portrayal — there's heart and soul behind Tammy Faye's larger-than-life persona, thoughtfully and sympathetically so. As she was with The 355, Chastain is also one of The Eyes of Tammy Faye's producers, and her investment in the part is apparent in every aspect of her portrayal. The film was clearly built around her work, which is excellent, but the picture plays like that's its whole point. Indeed, when it comes to seeing past the blatant, already-known and openly endorsed about its subject, and to genuinely unpacking her role in the prosperity gospel her husband promoted, the movie conspicuously stops short.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye nonetheless gives its protagonist far more depth than decades of joking about her have afforded. It also keenly draws attention to the ways she masterminded her and Jim's success, pushed to be seen as an equal in male-dominated evangelical circles and broke with right-wing doctrine to promote god's love for all. In one of the feature's best scenes, the film shows her refusing to merely sit and gossip with the other wives as Jim hobnobs with religious media moguls Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds, Amazing Stories) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio, The Unforgivable). In another, it recreates Tammy Faye's emotional TV interview with AIDS-positive Christian pastor Steve Pieters (Randy Havens, The Suicide Squad). Still, it never escapes notice that Showalter and Sylvia choose not to connect more than a few dots, or to ponder if they should be. In their retelling, their point of focus is smart, astute and dedicated, but has the scantest of links with Praise the Lord's demise.
As a result, there's too often a Wikipedia-meets-cinema air to The Eyes of Tammy Faye. While that's helpful for newcomers to the Bakkers, and there are fascinating titbits to cover — such as Heritage USA, their Christian theme park, which came third in patronage only to Disney World and Disneyland at its height — it's also the marker of a tame and standard film. Of course, the movie is unsurprisingly scathing towards Jim's clutched-to belief that god wants them to be wealthy, the tactics used to fleece his followers to put the idea into action and his preaching that faith is the path to riches, as it should be. (That's a line of thinking still trotted out in theology today, abhorrently so.) If only the rest of the feature had that bite, or more, as it luxuriates in its era-appropriate costuming and decor, and in its leading lady's compelling work.
Early in the picture, in one of its displays of childhood dejection, Rachel demands that Tammy Faye "stop performing". Those words loom large over The Eyes of Tammy Faye, even with Chastain's performance its best element (and with Garfield turning in a fine effort as well). Frequently, the movie resembles as much of an act as Tammy Faye's take on femininity does — staging the minutiae for the world to see, but too rarely daring to peer past the caked-on surface. It ensures that its eponymous figure is embraced for more than her makeup, yet still stays skin-deep regarding the bulk of her complexities and contradictions. That doesn't make this a terrible movie, but it does spark a straightforward and simplistic biopic that prays for more gumption, bombast, pluck and verve.