October 25, 2021

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‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ Offers A Rosy Glimpse Of A Complex Character

The Eyes of Tammy Faye takes a rosy view of its complicated namesake.

That’s fine if you’re catching director Michael Showalter’s new movie for the ridiculous wigs, jaw-dropping makeup, and stunning lead performance by Jessica Chastain. But if you’re hoping for insight into the unique intersection of religion, politics, and scandal where the titular televangelist, who died in 2007, spent most of her life, you’ll be more disappointed than dazzled.

It’s easy to see why a filmmaker would want to take on Tammy Faye Bakker (later Tammy Faye Messner) in a biopic. With a staccato voice often compared to Betty Boop’s and a downfall that captured the attention of a tabloid-worshipping nation, Tammy Faye led a remarkable life practically destined for onscreen depiction. Not only did she sing gospel, make puppets, and cultivate an outrageous look that made her timelessly identifiable, but she also exuded a striking optimism and kind acceptance that made her beloved to some, even during a criminal investigation.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye captures a lot of this, tracing from Tammy Faye’s upbringing in rural Minnesota through the heyday of her TV broadcasting career, and to the beginnings of her post-fall from grace reemergence in the mid-90s. But the focus is predictably and disproportionately placed on Tammy Faye’s marriage to preacher-turned-pariah Jim Bakker and the fraud-fueled demise of their shared evangelical entertainment empire — an obvious choice that prevents Showalter from doing something more interesting with his fascinating subject and two-hour-plus runtime.

Whether he should have played such a big role is up for debate, but Andrew Garfield's performance as Jim Bakker is unquestionably excellent.
Whether he should have played such a big role is up for debate, but Andrew Garfield’s performance as Jim Bakker is unquestionably excellent.

Played by Andrew Garfield, whose spot-on accent work is rivaled here only by his exquisitely rendered prosthetic cheeks, Jim Bakker is an inextricable part of Tammy Faye’s history, to be sure. The proselytizing pair’s rise through the Christian Broadcasting Network, and later founding of their own PTL Satellite Network, is what made them famous. Had they not married and then worked together neither Jim nor Tammy Faye would have been likely to cross paths with high-profile Christian Republicans like Jerry Falwell, played by an excellent Vincent D’Onofrio, nor gain enough national attention to merit revisiting their legacy in 2021.

And to the movie’s credit, the couple’s dynamic partnership is well-imagined and well-acted, with the complexity of their commitment to one another on par with the character work done in Chastain’s other recent release, HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage. Early scenes showing the duo flirting through Bible verses and resisting temptation until they, uh, don’t paint a likable picture of a budding romance. Later scenes portraying infidelity, prescription drug abuse, and more deliver a bitter toxicity palpable enough to make you squirm in your seat.

Still, making a movie that’s more about the Bakkers’ relationship than Tammy Faye’s journey as an individual — and still billing it under her name and face — seems to misunderstand the great strangeness of her legacy. Too often sidelined by the powerful men in her circle, it was Tammy Faye’s indelible commitment to being herself at all times, not just when it was convenient for the cameras, that gained her fans and defenders, particularly among the LGBTQ community.

10 out of 10 performances, even if it's a middling movie.
10 out of 10 performances, even if it’s a middling movie.

And yet, The Eyes of Tammy Faye chooses to bookend much of her story around Jim Bakker, entirely leaving out her eventual marriage to Roe Messner, played by Sam Jaeger, as well as her more than 11-year battle with colon cancer while still in the public eye. What’s more, even within the context of her marriage to Jim Bakker, The Eyes of Tammy Faye fails to interrogate the role she played in their business, handwaving her knowledge of her husband’s criminal activity beyond believability. (It’s not that the film had to accuse her of being involved, but even one scene showing her speaking with police alone would have told Tammy Faye’s side of things more completely.)

Chastain is undeniably spectacular and the period drama’s attention to detail utterly impeccable. But ultimately, The Eyes of Tammy Faye cuts its inspiration down to her most cloyingly tidy, failing to honor the messy self-assuredness that made her special. The result is a confusing blend of theatrics and melancholy, that lands somewhere between the cheekiness of I, Tonya and the profound sadness of Judy in a way that never feels quite right. It’s a worthy effort, just not the one she or audiences deserved.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is now in theaters.

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