Can a fictional film ever truly show the audience who a real-life person was outside of public view? Well, Hollywood tries. Often. And will inevitably try again in the future. The latest effort is The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker, one-half of the infamous televangelist couple. The story tracks their meeting, rise to the top, and spectacular fall from grace.
The Bakkers’ actions and the environment in which they occurred provides the opportunity for exploration of meaty themes. That’s not what the viewer gets with this film, at least not consistently. What better outlet for discussing the theatricality and performance of religion than a story about televangelists? It’s singularly appropriate. However, this script is only sporadically successful at this kind of substance.
There are promising touches in the early sequences, as a child Tammy Faye has her first interactions with the institution of the church. Her mother even actually tells her at one point to “Stop performing!” But Tammy is established as a natural performer, always eager to talk to people, something that carries on to adulthood. She enjoys being in front of a camera, singing, and (memorably) having makeup on. Various sequences in the film’s middle section, which portray the Bakkers as they film their programs, blend staging and editing in a way that effectively shows the viewer that their work was more showbusiness than ministry.
Particularly when the Bakker empire collapses, the film could have made a deeper statement about how superficial acting out of faith can be. It doesn’t. Instead, writer Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter (who has directed both film and television, such as episodes of Grace and Frankie) choose to make more time to position Tammy as a foil to super-conservative Jerry Falwell, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. This decision is understandable in light of the current political climate here in the US, but stronger thematic connections would have been even better.
Jim and Tammy Faye truly began to accrue wealth after joining the CBN network. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, their fame grew, and they eventually left to begin their own network: PTL, or Praise the Lord. At one point, they had their own satellite (yes, you read that right) and reached 20 million people a day. From the beginning of his preaching career, Jim states that he does not see prosperity as anathema to religion. Once the money rolls in, they live lavishly. In typical biopic story beats, the Bakkers have marital problems, Tammy gets hooked on pills, and then Jim finally gets caught embezzling. Did Tammy know about the financial crimes? The film doesn’t stray from the claim Tammy made while alive: that she didn’t know.
Now, let’s talk about Jessica Chastain’s performance because this really is her movie. Of course, any actress could’ve had that famous garish, gaudy makeup applied to her face and looked like Tammy. But there’s more than that going on here. First of all, just physically, the subtle prosthetics used to shape Chastain’s face into one more like Bakker’s is well done. Chastain, who can also be seen right now on the small screen in HBO‘s Scenes From A Marriage, also accomplishes details like Tammy’s Minnesota accent and distinctive giggle. Most importantly, Chastain gets at a certain optimism that feels like a defining characteristic of Tammy’s personality. Increasing the level of difficulty for this role is the singing, which Chastain also carries off. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her in awards contention when the time comes.
Surrounding Chastain and her remarkable physical transformation, the performance of Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker is strong as well. He coaxes out the complexity of his dialogue and doesn’t overshadow Chastain. D’Onofrio may be an unexpected choice to play Falwell but his vocal cadences and effortless superiority seem spot on. When you consider these performers, it’s hard not to wish that The Eyes of Tammy Faye had more of a scriptural foundation to show the real heart and soul behind all that makeup.
Ultimately, we give it 3 1/2 diamonds out of 5.