THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)
Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Jaeger, Gabriel Olds, Mark Wystrach, Chandler Head, Fredric Lehne, Jay Huguley, Louis Cancelmi, Coley Company, Randy Havens, Joe Ando-Hirsh, Kimberly Hester Huffstetler, Meredith Jackson, Michelle Brown Houston, Lindsay Ayliffe and Sophia Bell.
Screenplay by Abe Sylvia.
Directed by Michael Showalter.
Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 126 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Tammy Faye Bakker had a fascinating role in popular culture in the last century. She started out as a televangelist’s wife and popular religious program co-hostess. She weathered the storm of a scandal and public mocking due to her soon-to-be ex-husband’s multiple sexual and financial indiscretions. Tammy Faye’s eye makeup alone was the punch line to thousands of jokes. She later became somewhat beloved as a kitsch icon by the hipster and gay youth. She even had a brief TV talk show which she co-hosted with gay former sitcom star Jm J Bullock, just one of many examples that she had totally moved on from what would seem to be a strict fundamentalist religious background.
It was a pretty savvy reinvention by a woman who was always much more complicated than her public persona may have suggested.
Of course, Tammy Faye was always an odd fit for the world she was in. Despite her evangelical roots, she was actually a very open-minded woman in many ways. She got into trouble in the evangelical community because even at the height of her popularity with the PTL (Praise the Lord) Network, she did stories about homosexuals, erectile dysfunction and AIDs, treating the subjects with curiosity and empathy. She also stood up for women’s rights and believed that religion and politics should be kept separate. She was a bit of a progressive in a very conservative evangelical world.
Much like I Tonya a few years ago [which was about figure skater Tonya Harding], The Eyes of Tammy Faye takes as its heroine someone who has been dismissed for years as a tabloid joke and allows us to see her through a different lens. While sharing the comic and circus atmosphere surrounding Tammy Faye, the film still shows some understanding for a woman who endured much hardship and tragedy and really did only want to connect and try to help people. Her life just drifted way off course.
Also like I Tonya, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is much more entertaining than you may expect going in.
The movie rides on the strong performance of Jessica Chastain in the title role. Tammy Faye’s eccentricities – the odd makeup, the countless wigs, the Betty Boop voice, the over-the-top enthusiasm, the slight naivete – could lead a lesser actor to turn her into a rather cartoonish figure. While Chastain embraces Tammy Faye in all of her quirkiness, she also gives a deeper look into the mind of a woman who truly believes that she is doing good and spreading God’s word through performance.
You see, all of Tammy Faye’s life was about performance from the time that she was a child – to the point where perhaps even she didn’t know what was real and what was an act. Which is not to say she didn’t sincerely believe in what she was doing, but perhaps she did turn a blind eye to some of the more problematic aspects of it. However, whether she was interacting one-on-one or with an international television audience, she always radiated complete sincerity.
Chastain finds the sweet spot in this conundrum – when the entirety of life is an act, what is real? – and she gives Tammy Faye many fascinating levels. Hard as it may be to believe, Chastain actually makes you feel a bit sorry for someone who has been written off as a punch line. She helps you see the humanity in a person who is always “on.”
Also spectacular is Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s taciturn mother, a church piano player who is alternately horrified by and proud of her daughter’s ascension in the religious community.
Andrew Garfield plays Jim Bakker with a huckster’s smile, televangelist hair and a deep well of self-doubt and self-pity. Other big names in the early days of super churches show up, Vincent D’Onofrio is brusque and duplicitous as Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Gabriel Olds does a spot-on performance as the Bakker’s early mentor Pat Robertson.
In fact, perhaps The Eyes of Tammy Faye does soft pedal, a bit, the far-right religious shift of the church which came in the wake of people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker (who, after being released from jail, went back to televangelism and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump). This is touched on, but never really delved in any in depth manner.
To a certain extent, this can be said about the entire movie. There was a lot more to the Bakkers’ story than is explored here. However, what is shown is surprisingly watchable.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 17, 2021.