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Review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

March 23, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is nominated for Best Actress (Jessica Chastain) and Best Makeup & Hairstyling at the 94th Academy Awards.

The first thing we see in The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a closeup on Jessica Chastain’s face, buried under a heavy layer of makeup and prosthetics to make her look like disgraced televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.

Tammy is asked by an offscreen voice to remove the makeup from her gaudy visage, and she wipes off her lipstick without it making much difference. She informs them that her lips are permanently lined and that she never goes anywhere without her eyelash extensions.

It’s a fitting opening for a film that is all about image, namely how Tammy Faye and her TV preacher husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) played the part of sincere Christians preaching the word of God in order to validate their own egos and satisfy the salacious greed of their affluent, materialistic lifestyles.

Except in the case of Tammy, the film suggests, she sincerely believes in what she is doing and sharing her love for all of God’s children. In telling the story of her marriage to Bakker, the film is wise to keep Tammy Faye as the main focal point. And it is Chastain’s wonderful, sympathetic portrayal laced with a hint of camp, and the makeup work that allows her to transform into a dead-ringer for Tammy Faye, that elevates the film somewhat beyond what is otherwise a pretty standard biopic.

Directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, and the film is a fairly entertaining effort, but it also struggles to find a consistent tone or offer much new insight into its real life subjects. The screenplay by Abe Sylvia keeps things pretty surface deep as the film rushes through the beats of Tammy’s life, complete with years and magazine covers flashing across the screen to show the passage of time.

The film serves as somewhat of a reclamation of Tammy’s legacy, presenting her as a good-natured, almost childlike woman who found the spirit at a young age. She meets Jim as an aspiring preacher, and marries him after becoming enamoured by one of his sermons. From here, the film charts the rise and fall of Jim’s televangelist career, as he builds upon the success of Pat Robertson (portrayed by Gabriel Olds) to launch PTL (Praise the Lord) Satellite Network, and takes her along for the ride.

Jim’s carefully built empire would come to be investigated for fraud, money laundering and other indiscretions, including the use of donations from the network to fund a lavish lifestyle. But the film suggests that Tammy was naively oblivious to much of this, despite her own appetite for clothes and makeup being funded through donations to the ministry, and remained sincere in her efforts to preach the word of God. Chastain does much of the heavy lifting in selling us on this through her performance.

The best and most touching scene is a recreation of the groundbreaking interview that Tammy did with AIDS activist Steve Pieters (played here by Randy Havens). Tammy’s willingness to accept homosexuals as equal children of God, and her refusal to play by the rules of the “boy’s club,” ruffled the feathers of her husband’s financial backers, including prominent Christian conservative Jerry Falwell (a plum role for Vincent D’Onofrio). The film shows how PTL became a major force in the religious movement that started to infiltrate federal politics in the 1970s and ’80s, with the Christian Right gaining prominence under President Reagan.

The film also hints that Jim himself is struggling to accept his homosexual attraction, and Garfield leans in to playing him as a man repressed (fitting for an actor whose own comments about his sexuality have led to plenty of “is he or isn’t he” questions over the years), even wrestling on the floor with his assistant Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi) at one point. But, despite Garfield’s natural charisma that he brings to the role, the film’s portrayal of Jim Bakker still seems a bit thin, and it doesn’t seem that interested in really exploring what made him tick.

Throughout it all, Showalter struggles to nail down the right tone. The film could best be described as a dramedy, but it veers between clichéd biopic, sincere melodrama about a naive woman being exploited through an uneven relationship, and campy sendup of the televangelism industry. It doesn’t really probe deep enough into any of it to have much bite, and the film itself ironically ends up feeling a bit surface level. But Chastain still manages to inject a good deal of heart to it, and her sincere performance is what makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye worth seeing.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now available to stream on Disney+ in Canada.

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