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The Hollywood Insider The Eyes of Tammy Faye Review, Jessica Chastain

Photo: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

A montage of real-life newsreels flash across the screen as credits slide in and out of focus before fading away to reveal a black screen. The first image to break through the midnight curtain is an ornately decorated pair of tender eyes, crowned in thick charcoal false-eyelashes and bedazzled with sparkly sterling highlights. The eyes dart off to somewhere beyond the camera, a shrill Minnesota timbre informing a lingering unseen figure that everything on her face – from the caked spidery lashes to the severe ashen lip liner – is completely permanent. “This is me,” the voice adds with a half-hearted laugh, the eyes slightly wincing as they stare into the mirror in front of them. 

‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ – Premiere & Reactions

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‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

These eyes belong to none other than disgraced televangelical empress Tammy Faye Bakker, here brought to life by Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain in the film ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ (2021). This opening gag, while of course a knowing allusion to the film’s ocular-centric title, is also an earnest proclamation of where the audience will be spending the next two hours. The film puts viewers directly into the world of Tammy Faye, as seen through her own infamous baby blues, spanning from her first childhood footsteps in her local church, exultant rise and cataclysmic fall as televisions premier Bible-thumper alongside her dubious husband Jim, and late-life reclamation as an unlikely LGBTQ+ advocate and icon.

Directed by ‘The Big Sick’ (2016) helmer Michael Showalter and headlined by the aforementioned star of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012) and ‘The Social Network’ (2010) actor Andrew Garfiled as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker respectively, ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ proves a surprisingly affecting exercise in cinematic camp that allows its central dyad the ability to have a swing at what may be the most demanding performances of their careers. 

A Beguiling Recontextualization of One of America’s Favorite Punchlines 

After its enticing opening vignette, the film jumps back nearly 50 years, picking up with Tammy Faye as an enthusiastic child in a rural Minnesotan hamlet. It quickly becomes clear that Tammy’s skewed relationship to Christianity can be traced all the way back to her youth, kept from going to church by her mother (played by Tony-winning actress Cherry Jones) because she is a child of divorce. The story then jumps forward a few years to her tenure at the North Central Bible College of Minneapolis where she first runs into Garfield’s ambiguous yet driven young preacher Jim Bakker.

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Before the audience or Tammy Faye can settle on a firm grasp of the ecclesiastic, Jim asks Tammy to marry him, citing dreams to travel the country saving souls and parroting scripture. They fall into the burgeoning frontier of televangelism by happenstance, scoring a gig as hosts of a local Christian children’s program before upgrading to a puppet ministry on the conservative evangelical network CBN. It’s during their time at CBN that the pair first come face to face with Vincent D’Onofrio’s notorious Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., Tammy quite literally demanding a seat at the table in the backyard assembly of the industry’s bigwigs. 

The two eventually decided to start their own station dubbed PTL (Praise The Lord), the channel quickly growing to become the 4th most popular in America with an annual gross of around $120 million throughout the 1970s. The duo and their program ‘The PTL Club’ (1974-1987) became domestic juggernauts, though Jim’s wandering eye and wandering wallet never strayed far from Tammy’s mind. After confessing to Jim that she had been unfaithful, he demands Tammy apologize to him on-air, secretly aware that the confession would lead to a spike in donations from the couple’s legions of devoted “partners”. From here, Tammy tumbles into a pit of drug-addled depression (a staple of any self-respecting biopic at this point), emerging from her months-long stupor only to learn accusations of rampant fraud and misconduct have been alleged against her now-distant husband.

News of hush-money taken directly from PTLs donations and paid towards a woman accusing Bakker of rape had gone public, followed in short succession by further accusations of fiscal impropriety and marital failings both male and female. After a fiery confrontation in their lavish lakeside living room, Bakker is sentenced to 45 years in prison, leaving Tammy alone to bear the brunt of the backlash and ridicule. A somber epilogue adorns the film’s final fifteen minutes, tracing Tammy’s life after divorcing Jim, adrift in a world that sees her as little more than a hypocrite in clown makeup. The bleak ending finds a bittersweet final note though, closing on an emphatic rendition of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” performed by a rapturous Tammy caught up in what may have wound up being her final moment in the spotlight.

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A Long-Gestating Passion Project Featuring a Breathtaking Transformation From Its Star and Producer; Jessica Chastain

While it may not look like it on the surface, ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ is a film that has been in various states of development for close to ten years. After being moved by the 2000 documentary of the same name directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and narrated by RuPaul, Chastain auctioned the rights to Tammy Faye’s story in 2012. Since then, the starlet has put forth a herculean effort to get cameras rolling on the picture, finally entering production on the film in October of 2019. While it may have taken every ounce of strength she had, it is clear that the wait was well worth it for Chastain as she delivers what is undoubtedly her greatest and most ambitious role to date. Making a name for herself in Hollywood by portraying largely solemn and resolute figures in films like ‘The Tree of Life’ (2011), ‘Interstellar’ (2013), and ‘Molly’s Game’ (2017), the looming challenge posed in filling Tammy Faye’s shoulder pads may have seemed to many a bridge too far for the actress. Nonetheless, Chastain absolutely bursts off the screen -glossy fake cheekbones and all. 

No matter how hammered up the character or the sparkling dreamscape of the televangelist promised land becomes, Chastain remains committed to imbuing Tammy Faye with the dignity and humanity largely withheld from her during the final years of her life. Rather than falling into the tabloid sensationalism and cruel parody that would color much of Tammy Faye’s media representation in the years after the scandal and fall of the PTL empire, the film assesses the facts of Tammy’s life with a nuanced perspective.

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Moments like Tammy’s groundbreaking on-air interview with AIDS patient Steve Pieters and continued support of the gay community at a time when most of America -let alone religious America- had all but turned their backs serve to highlight the true gradation of Tammy’s legacy. While her lowest lows were aired out in the public eye, the struggle she faced each day married to a man who saw her less as a wife and more as a theme park attraction was buried deep underneath the inches of primer and plush. All of this and more is laid to rest in Chastain’s masterful performance, truly one of the year’s best and likely a shoo-in for a Best Actress nod come awards season this winter. 

A Splendid Camp Oeuvre That Captures the Larger-Than-Life Spirit of the Real Tammy Faye

The key to enjoying ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’, much like the key to understanding the real-life figure herself, is understanding that much of the kitsch is purely performative and at the end of the day, they are both “in on the joke”. Audiences expecting the sober austerity of recent biographical dramas like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018) and ‘Judy’ (2019) will find a far more self-aware satire and rye repartee than they initially bargained for. But if one understands that the film, and the performances featured in it, are purposefully dialing things up to 11 (Garfield possibly even more so than Chastain, offering an equally mold-shattering performance that expertly supports his phenomenal scene partner) then they will walk out the theater with more tears down their cheeks than Tammy Faye. 

*Fiendish Michigander Andrew Garfield voice* “And remember – God loves you! He really, really does!”

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Mark Wystrach, Louis Cancelmi

Cinematographer: Mike Goulakis | Editor: Mary Jo Markey, Andrew Weisblum | Score: Theodore Shapiro

Director: Michael Showalter | Writer: Abe Sylvia | Producers: Jessica Chastain, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Gigi Pritzker, Meredith Milton, Rachel Shane, Kelly Carmichael, Jenny Hinkey, Adrian Alperovich

By Andrew Valianti

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