In the opening moments of the new biopic directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Tammy Faye Bakker (played flawlessly by Jessica Chastain) is being made up for an event that clearly takes place long after the financial and personal scandals that took down the ministry and television network she built with then-husband Jim Bakker in the 1980s. The makeup artist wants to remove her lip- and eyeliner, to effectively start from scratch and touch her up in a more natural way. But Tammy Faye informs the young woman that those two elements of her face are permanently lined; they are key elements of her trademark look, and nothing can get them off. Same goes for her enormous and dark fake eyelashes.
It’s one of the few moments in the film where Tammy Faye doesn’t end a serious statement with a nervous-tick-style giggle, and it’s one of the few times in her life where we see her fully in control of both her look and her brand. She might not have thought of it as taking agency in herself, but that’s what it is, and although we don’t know the circumstances of the moment in question (we do find out by the film’s end), it gives her life a place to go, which is critical because so often in her storied and exaggerated existence, she was not in control of anything spinning around her.
Based on the eye-opening (no pun intended) 2000 documentary of the same name (and adapted by Abe Sylvia), The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a high-energy, spirited, spiritual telling of Tammy Faye’s life, both before, during and after her marriage to Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, perhaps not as convincing as Chastain in his portrayal, but still quite good). To be clear, this is not a movie about the Bakkers, although they are certainly a big part of the story. What this film wants to do is set some kind of record straight about Tammy Faye’s role in the ministry, how she got involved with Bakker in the first place, and the key differences between what the church was teaching at the time and what she believed, especially in areas like gay rights and the government’s and society’s treatment of people who were HIV+.
She was of a firm belief that the God she believed in did not make mistakes, that people should love who they want because love was a gift from God, and that looking down upon anyone because of their sexuality wasn’t very Christian. Her status as a hero in the gay community was solidified fully thanks in large part to an on-air interview she conducted with gay activist Steve Pieters, who was HIV+ (and is still alive today), on the Bakkers’ PTL Network. At the time, the station was the fourth-largest television network in the country and the world’s largest religious network.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye takes us back to Tammy Faye’s upbringing in rural Minnesota, when she wasn’t allowed in the church her family attended because her mother (Cherry Jones) and father were divorced. She had a loving stepfather, who was far less strict with her. Tammy Faye was so committed to serving the Lord in some fashion, she broke the rules and marched into the church to be born again. She met Jim Bakker while they were students at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where he became fascinated by passages in the bible that he interpreted as saying Christians shouldn’t celebrate being modest and poor, but instead should accumulate wealth as a way of celebrating God. Growing up as poor as she did (Tammy Faye was the eldest of eight children), she certainly didn’t dislike the idea of being rich, and after a series of television shows in which Tammy Faye did religious-themed puppet shows for children while Jim preached in overly simplistic terms, they started to become famous as part of Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” televised ministry. It was around this time that they first met the man who would boost them up and ultimately tear them down, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio, embodying unearned superiority and pomposity). Before long (in 1974, to be precise), the Bakkers formed the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, and the pledges started rolling in.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is loaded with performances that are impossible to take your eyes off. Jones plays not only the mother but the voice of reason and Tammy Faye’s conscience, asking her daughter repeatedly “Where is the money to pay for your extravagant lifestyle coming from, and where is it going?” Tammy Faye is so happy to be preaching and singing with the man she loves that details like finances or whether or not Jim was messing around with other women (or men) didn’t cross her mind, at least not at first. But as her husband stays away from her night after night, she begins to think impure thoughts about her music producer and even acts on them once while she’s nine months pregnant.
Chastain doesn’t just perfect the voice, hair, clothes and look of Tammy Faye (through heavy prosthetic makeup that looks very convincing), but she embodies the woman’s spiritual energy, devotion to her causes, and the soul-crushing moments in her life when the persona drifts away and we see the real Tammy Faye whose husband kept so much from her that it nearly destroyed her heart and body (pills may have contributed to that as well). She’s the perfect combination of knowing yet innocent of the worst of her husband’s indiscretions. Director Showalter has an equally tough job balancing the tone of the film, which takes the Bakkers’ lives seriously, while fully acknowledging the comic possibilities of their lifestyle and personalities. As a former member of the sketch comedy group The State, Showalter knows the value of the right costume, wig or accessory, and that was a major part of Tammy Faye’s brand.
Garfield’s performance is less awe-inspiring, but that doesn’t stop him from capturing Bakker’s master con artist mentality and abilities to separate people from their cash, even those who can’t really afford to give. He sold the world on the concept of buying your way into heaven; hell, he built the mold for televangelists around the world. He may not have been the first, but for a time, he was the most successful. The downfall of the Bakkers is rushed through a bit too quickly, but the aftermath, which left Bakker in jail and Tammy Faye virtually penniless, is a rare moment in this story where things feel grounded in reality a bit too perfectly. Tammy Faye knows this life far too well, given her childhood, and she accepts the new role with grace, dignity and that nervous giggle that sometimes hits like an icepick to the heart.
Even if you think you don’t want to watch a film about this period because you lived through it, see it for Chastain’s mesmerizing character work. She does puppet voices, sings, preaches, cries on cue, plays a drug addict—it’s the complete acting package, and as much as it sounds like a gimmick, it all comes together beautifully. I don’t like to talk or speculate about awards possibilities in any category, but Chastain is an absolute lock for most acting award nominations, and in my eyes, she’s the frontrunner. And the film is funny, infuriating, and fully entertaining, much like its subjects.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now playing in theaters.
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