Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 21st, 2021
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Michael Showalter, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Based on the eponymous 2000 documentary and the actual life of its subject (the one-time Tammy Faye Bakker), the new biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye features a terrific Jessica Chastain (Ava) in the lead, a less perfect Andrew Garfield (Under the Silver Lake) as Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye’s husband, and a script that entertains at intervals yet fails to deliver a consistent point of view. It’s a mixed cinematic bag, in other words, though an often very engaging one. From her early years through her marriage to Bakker to the collapse of their joint televangelist empire and (briefly) the aftermath, the movie follows the adventures and misadventures of Tammy Faye in all her glory and sadness, ultimately presenting her as an affable, if immoderate, protagonist. She may have wed a scoundrel, but here, at least, she always meant well.
We start in California, in 1994, well past the scandal that brought down the Bakkers’ PTL Network and led to the couple’s divorce, as Tammy Faye is trying to move on, the camera extremely close on her titular orbs before pulling back to reveal her heavily painted face. “Do you want to take your lips off?” asks an unseen makeup artist. “Oh, no, they’re permanently like that,” she answers. And then we see the black lines that are apparently forever inked in place. Though we will learn quite a lot about Tammy Faye in the course of the movie, we never discover why she leapt to such an extreme. It’s just one of many gaps in the last act, but hardly a fatal narrative flaw. Still, this opening effectively sets the stage for the gaudy style for which Tammy Faye became increasingly known throughout her life.
From there, the film jumps back to 1952 Minnesota, where the ten-year-old Tammy Faye finds herself an object of shame for her twice-married mother (an excellent Cherry Jones, The Party), whose evangelical community frowns on divorce, of which the girl, a product of a first union, reminds everyone. Fed up with being left alone during services, however, Tammy Faye one day barges into church and starts speaking in tongues, bringing instant acceptance. Cut to bible college in 1960, where she meets a young Jim Bakker, the two instantly bonding in their mutual dislike of the stuffiness and insistence on dour poverty that their religion espouses. Soon thereafter married, they go on the road to recruit parishioners, the two working as an efficient duo, he preaching and she putting on puppet shows and singing. Jim brings the theology and she bathes it in the warm glow of love and fun. It would prove a winning combination.
Until it didn’t, as they spent wildly and beyond their means, eventually landing in real financial trouble, compounded by sexual impropriety and worse (Jim was accused of rape). Though initially tolerated (barely) by the likes of the older Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds, Apartment 407) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio, Rings), the Bakkers find themselves quickly spurned once their fortunes turn. Before then, however, we have watched them slowly tear themselves apart, mostly out of greed and romantic frustration, though Tammy Faye comes out far the better. Plus, in a world of moralistic hatred directed at gays during the AIDS crisis, she was one of the few voices to speak of tolerance and, as always, love. She may have been far from a saint, but she was certainly kind.
Chastain carries the movie, the later facial prosthetics no obstacle to her emotional power, though Jones and D’Onofrio, along with others, also deliver solid supporting performances. The story is by no means a wash, but the ending feels rushed, and we miss out on Tammy Faye’s final chapter, when she remarried (she died in 2007). It would also be interesting to see a little of what Jim Bakker is now up to, given that he is somehow back on air today, even if Garfield’s performance is one of the film’s weak links. And how exactly are we supposed to think of Tammy Faye’s choices and where she ended up? Whatever the structural problems in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, those eyes still dazzle.