More than a decade after the collapse of the sprawling empire created by televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker — due to the decidedly un-Christian demands of greed, sexual impropriety, and real affection for all things gold — Tammy Faye began to reemerge into very public life. The cherry on top of a motley career that saw the former television personality doing everything from appearing on “The Surreal Life” to penning a book about her ordeal (titled, amusingly, “I Will Survive…And You Will Too”) was a documentary titled “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which sought to unpack the truth about her wild rise to fame. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s doc gave Bakker — an iconic for all the wrong reasons — the chance to tell her story, her way, which means with significant embellishment and plenty of heart.
Now, two more decades on, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” gets the narrative treatment, care of a frazzled, unfocused biopic that, again, leans into stories so crazy that they must be true, as led by the indomitable charms of a woman without peer. Michael Showalter’s film — also, somewhat confusingly, titled “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” — initially opens with the facts, including archival footage from the early days of the so-called “Pearlygate” drama that effectively ended the Bakkers’ careers (and marriage), before moving squarely into Tammy Faye’s (Jessica Chastain) line of vision. This is the Tammy Faye Bakker story, after all, and while Showalter’s film rarely coalesces into a satisfying whole, Chastain holds the whole damn thing together, thanks to a will as strong as whatever Bakker used to keep her trademark false eyelashes in place.
When we meet young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head), the Minnesota-born kiddo is a fervent believer, but her local church won’t even let her in the doors; her once-divorced mother, played by a hoppin’ mad Cherry Jones, is a “harlot” and can only enter the church because they need her piano-playing skills; her bastard kids need not apply. Thus is born Tammy Faye’s dual obsessions: getting close to God and showing up anyone who tries to get in the way of her doing just that.
Bible college doesn’t prove to be the salve she’s hoping for, but at least that’s where she meets savvy Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who charms Tammy Faye with a banger of a message (“God does not want people to be poor!”) and a real skill for delivering such money-hungry sermons. They’re a match made in Heaven (or Hell?), and the only thing they’re hornier for than each other is the gilded, God-demanded future they both foresee. If God is with the Bakkers, who can possibly be against them?
Tasked with covering great swathes of time, Abe Sylvia’s screenplay glides over important chunks to get to the good stuff — the Bakkers’ rise from puppet-toting third-stringers on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to the stars of the massively successful “The PTL Club” and its attendant PTL Satellite Network goes by in a flash. In other words, the height of the pair’s powers, just before the fall. Throughout this shaky narrative, Tammy Faye remains a force to be reckoned with, as best exemplified by a scene in which she literally stomps up to the men’s table (including Vincent D’Onofrio as a terrifying Jerry Falwell) and all but invents a place for herself among their ranks.
All that bluster feeds into an unexpected tone for the film, which boils down to one persistent question: is this meant to be funny (or at least cheeky), or is Showalter (an experienced comedic director) wholly out of his depth in crafting a dramatic story? Clearly, comedic beats do land, from a hilarious quick-cut to a wailing Garfield to a humdinger of a line proclaiming the glory of, and this is serious, the Halloween classic “The Monster Mash.” But what happened to the Bakkers isn’t amusing and neither are the larger implications of their story.
Maybe we’re meant to laugh at Tammy Faye, as so many others did, before finding the humanity in her, and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” certainly moves toward a decidedly downbeat final act. But those tonal changes don’t work in this context, and the film lurches and twists in ways that are difficult to decipher. Is it funny? Not really. Is it good? Sort of. Is Chastain great? Yes, and thank God for that.
Much has been made of Chastain’s heavy, incredibly transformative makeup — the actress is already wondering if she did permanent damage to her skin, and you can’t really blame her for those worries, because wow — and while the enhancements slathered onto her face are jarring, they are somehow the least showy thing about the film. Tammy Faye hid behind her makeup (the film’s opening monologue makes sure that point is obvious), and Chastain manages to pull off the high-wire act of simultaneously embracing that side of her character while also not losing the texture of her performance underneath gobs of foundation and 10-pound fake eyelashes.
In its best moments, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” lets Chastain shine out, finding truth and pain in Tammy Faye that goes far beyond the pancake makeup. And it’s not just the makeup that assists this remarkable performance, it’s also the empathy the film has for her: it’s firmly on Tammy Faye’s side, casting her as something (just something) of an innocent bystander to the misdeeds of the men around her. She’s not fully absolved, but if there are villains in the film, they are all the ones hurting Tammy Faye, never Tammy Faye hurting anyone else (beyond, of course, herself).
But that empathy for Tammy Faye often finds awkward outlets that further muddle the film and pull away from its marquee attraction in Chastain. A discomfiting subplot tips into gay panic territory — Tammy Faye, wide-eyed as she watches Jim and right-hand man Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi) wrestle around on the ground, the truth of their relationship seemingly dawning on her in real-time. While Jim was, at one point, accused of homosexual tendencies, those rumors never quite stuck (coming, as they did, in the middle of all the other accusations of impropriety lobbed at him). That the film then also tries to play up Tammy Faye’s bona fides as an LGBTQ ally makes it all feel even stranger that such a section would be included (and, it must be noted, a sequence that recreates an iconic interview Tammy Faye did with an early AIDS patient is indeed quite touching).
For better or worse, we’re on Tammy Faye’s side, but the film often embraces the worst bits of a complicated story in order to make Tammy Faye look better. Why not make her look more real, makeup and all? Chastain is always able to find that humanity, but “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” too often turns its attention to the wrong places. If God is with Tammy Faye, who can be against her? Chastain is with her, but “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” might not be.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures releases it in theaters on September 17.
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