PG-13 | 2h 6min | Biography, Drama | 17 September 2021 (USA)
Given Hollywood’s dismal track record when it comes to the unbiased portrayal of organized religion, it’s a near-miracle that the content found in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is so clear-eyed and nonjudgmental. While many of the characters in the film “spreading God’s word” are dutifully and rightfully hung out to dry, religion itself emerges largely unscathed.
As much of an American 1980s icon as Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Harrison Ford, Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain)—for good and bad—became the face of televangelism and for the entirety of her tumultuous career was regarded as an overly made-up, largely talentless Pollyanna.
It didn’t help that she was married to Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a lowly snake-oil huckster and one of the most corrupt men to ever call himself a preacher.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Tammy Faye had “the calling” from an early age. Despite the odd and relentless discouragement from her mother, Rachel (a sublime Cherry Jones), Tammy Faye was determined to dedicate her life to God and found a welcomed ally in Jim.
After meeting at a Bible class, the pair became inseparable and were quickly married, much to Rachel’s chagrin. Not exactly an “A-type” personality, the frequently aloof Jim wisely recognized the power of Tammy Faye’s unadulterated enthusiasm and viewed her as little more than a stage prop in achieving his lofty financial goals.
Tammy Faye Never Loses Her Calling
While Jim went through the motions on the pulpit, Tammy Faye was working the crowd and passing the metaphorical collection plate via a bank of blue touch-tone phones. The more Tammy Faye appeared on-screen, the fatter the Bakker coffers would become.
Using Tammy Faye worked in another way for Jim. Anytime his misdeeds came to a head—which was often—he’d trot out Tammy Faye to increase donations while he played the part of an aw-shucks supportive partner.
To the filmmakers’ credit, screenwriter Abe Silvia (adapting the 2000 documentary film of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato) and director Michael Showalter don’t let Tammy Faye off the hook, but not in a manner most would expect. After many years in the limelight and having grown accustomed to the nonstop adulation, Tammy Faye eventually became a somewhat willing participant in the perpetuation of the ruse. However, while she certainly enjoyed the spoils of the lavish lifestyle, she never lost sight of her original mission: doing God’s work and spreading the gospel.
And that’s the rub.
Tammy Faye often viewed her part in the enterprise as a required inconvenience. She knew that money kept the PTL (Praise the Lord) juggernaut humming along. Perhaps recognizing her financial importance to PTL, Tammy knew she could broach subjects and embrace individuals that didn’t fit conveniently underneath the traditional WASP umbrella. Her subscription to the ages-old concept of “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” flew directly in the face of every teleministry and megachurch of the time and always kept her on their fringe.
God seemed to be a pesky afterthought for Jim and an entity simply there to cover his mounting legal bills. He went as far as to suggest that his followers would meet dubious spiritual and possible physical fates if they didn’t pledge ever more increasing amounts of money to his church. This “fear-of-God” method of religious extortion was especially deplorable and was akin to mobsters demanding protection money.
An actress of incredible range and immense talent, Chastain has stated recently that this was the role she was born to play, and after watching the film, it’s easy to understand her position. Playing Tammy Faye from her teens through her 60s, Chastain is charged with donning dozens of body types, wardrobes, wigs, makeup, and psychological pathos—all while maintaining some semblance of consistency, believability, and conviction.
While exterior embellishments certainly aid any performer in their quest to capture the essence of a well-known public figure, nothing can provide a substitute for nuance or variety. And on that level, Chastain completely owns the film.
Garfield and Vincent D’Onofrio (as Jerry Falwell) both turn in excellent, measured performances, yet despite all of their best efforts, they still come up comparatively short when sharing screen time with the force of nature that is Chastain.
To label what Chastain has done here as career defining would be an understatement. This is a performer whose output in the years between 2010 through 2017 would be, for any other actress, enough to fill a career and then some. It was during this time that Chastain appeared in no less than 26 features, including “The Debt,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “Lawless,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Interstellar,” and “The Martian,” every one of them a gem covering a multitude of disciplines and genres.
With the awards season about to hit full stride, Chastain has quickly become the front-runner in virtually every critic’s poll, which is all the more impressive for a performance in a movie receiving so many overall lukewarm reviews. The Oscar—and every other major industry accolade—is Chastain’s for the asking.
‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’
Director: Michael Showalter
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Sept. 17, 2021
Rating: 3.5 out of 5