A mostly conventional biopic that seeks to redeem its main subject, featuring one of the year’s best performances.
Premise: An intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
The list of famous evangelicals who haven’t swindled money – or at least engaged in some sort of unsavory activity – is likely small and depressing. The list of biopics featuring famous faces who were secretly duping the unsuspecting public that trusted them is too long to count. The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t entirely a satire or a send-up of televised religions. Rather, it seeks to redeem its titular subject, all too often the subject of mocking criticism in the eyes of pop culture in the 80s and 90s, by examining her difficult upbringing and her life outside the TV screen.
Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield portray Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, two devoted souls who love studying and spreading the word of God to all who listen. Chastain and Garfield are perfectly cast, not only because they’re spitting images of their real-life counterparts, but because they work wonderfully together and separately. The pair meet in bible college in Minnesota, where their enthusiasm for the gospel sends them on a road trip to promote their act. Jim even shows up to her parents’ house in a brand new car. In a clever bit of foreshadowing, Jim’s explanation for how they could afford it involves a rambling diatribe about the lord’s will and rewarding ourselves for our suffering. It’s not long before they meet Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), and they’re gifted their own kid’s show on Robertson’s network. But Jim’s ambitions stretch far beyond children’s entertainment, and he creates The 700 Club, a nightly talk show with guests like Colonel Sanders. Fueled by that show’s success, and the subsequent launching of their own evangelical network, the film shows the Bakker’s quick and substantial lifestyle upgrades to bigger and better homes – they live on a compound which also serves pregnant teens and disabled kids – to luxurious wardrobes.
It’s this section of the film that presents the Bakker’s as a sort of riff on Jordan Belfourt from The Wolf of Wall Street, minus the outright contempt for the people they’re scamming (and the copious amounts of sex, drugs, and swearing, of course). Director Michael Showalter also notably chooses not to portray Tammy as complicit in Jim’s larger schemes. How much did she know about Jim’s financial indiscretions and how much did she simply willfully ignore? It’s not terribly damning that Showalter doesn’t pick a side, instead it just feels like he wanted to give a ridiculed celebrity his own version of redemption, similar to Ryan Murphy with Marcia Clark in The People vs. OJ Simpson.
But Showalter continues to bring up themes that the film could have devoted an entire act to, like Jim’s dabbles with homosexuality, the transformation of the church into another wing of the Republican party, the conflict between the Bakkers and Fallwell, the secular world’s reaction to Tammy Faye, and Tammy’s pill addiction, to name a few. Of all the subplots though, Showalter’s most successful is the dynamic between Tammy and her critical mother (a fantastically stone-faced Cherry Jones). Tammy consistently seeks her approval, even from early childhood, to no avail. With someone so unflappable in their believe that they can convert even the most fervent non-believer, it makes sense that Tammy would devote her life to seeking her own mother’s approval.
Still, a discussion on The Eyes of Tammy Faye would be incomplete without mentioning Jessica Chastain’s performance. It’s easy to compare Chastain to Christian Bale’s turn as Dick Cheney in Vice, but Chastain doesn’t just let the prosthetics do the heavy lifting. Chastain has clearly done her homework – she was drawn to the role after seeing the 2000 documentary of the same name, and is even listed as a producer. Chastain nails Tammy’s incredibly specific Minnesota accent, and makes Tammy a lone sympathetic figure amongst a sea of shady characters. It’s a deftly technical performance that, in the wrong hands, could have reinforced her caricature status. Tammy Faye isn’t a revelation for Chastain because we’ve seen her deliver memorable performances, but it’s refreshing to see a film fully crafted around her and her talents. Chastain is also aided by the intricate hair and makeup, and costume departments who give Tammy a different look in virtually every other scene, devolving from a natural face to an airbrushed, overdone stage makeup look. The work on Andrew Garfield similarly shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he goes from a baby-faced college boy to middle-aged throughout the course of the film. Don’t be shocked when the respective teams (and hopefully Chastain) hear their names called on Oscar nomination morning.
Tammy Faye Bakker stood out amongst her peers not only because she was one of the only female faces on Christian television but because of her embrace of the LGBTQ community (a radical departure from the viewpoint of mainstream Christianity). Showalter dedicates a handful of scenes that focus on this, including a faithful and powerful recreation of Tammy’s interview with a gay minister. This stems naturally from her belief that the church should embrace all of god’s children, which Showalter seeds early on, but an entire film could focus on this aspect. We never see the LGBTQ community’s reaction to Tammy’s embrace of them, though. Instead, the film remains laser-focused on presenting the story in a straightforward, factual manner. This makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye mostly a film full of good, but not great, scenes with a fairly shallow message. It doesn’t save the soul of the biopic, falling too often into clichés, but it’s a technically skilled, humorous movie thanks to Showalter, Chastain, Garfield, and the often-overlooked crafts.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye premieres in theaters everywhere on September 17.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.