Having grown up a kid in the ’80s, when televangelism was new and at its peak, it was impossible to miss the presence of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The most famous people of faith in the entire country during that time, they were everywhere spreading the gospel and raking in money hand over fist in a way that mirrored what the Home Shopping Network was doing at the time. What was that about “Blessed are the paupers”? The blatant hypocrisy between their lavish lifestyle and pious message made them easy targets for public ridicule, and when scandal broke out regarding Jim’s improprities, the pitchforks were out in force.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a light-hearted, almost satirical look at the life of Tammy Faye, played with wild passion and indomitable spirit by Jessica Chastain in a tremendous, all-or-nothing performance. I say “almost” satirical because the Jim and Tammy Faye seen in Michael Showalter’s film aren’t very different from what the people we saw on TV. They were performers in literally every facet of their lives. To them, all of the world was a stage, the parishioners their audience, and the kingdom of God as the amphitheatre.
The film is based on the acclaimed 2000 documentary that began the evolution of public perception of Tammy Faye. Once the target of vicious comedic attacks for her plastered-on makeup or her squeaky high-pitched voice and melodramatic acting, Tammy Faye eventually became a champion of LGBTQ rights and looked at as one of their heroes. Her depiction is considerably softer than her vile husband, Jim, played with boyish sliminess by Andrew Garfield. She’s repeatedly seen as questioning the homophobic agenda laid forth by powerful men such as Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’onofrio) and Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), putting Jim in an awkward position. He would take out his frustration on her, not physically, but by denying her the love and affection she needed, having never received much of it from her mother (Cherry Jones), whose divorce had made her a pariah with the Church. Tammy Faye feared the same thing would happen to her, something Jim knew and played to his advantage while keeping closeted his infidelity and corruption.
Showalter gets the tone just about right, something we should expect from the guy who gave us The Big Sick just a few years ago. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is at its core a story of redemption for Tammy Faye, which means not delving too deep into her own part in the PTL Club’s criminality, or her battle with drug abuse, adultery, and more. That stuff is largely waved off so that the story could be framed, quite successfully, as that of an outspoken, devout woman who lost her way, paid for her sins, and eventually came back into the light. Abe Sylvia’s script reduces tougher examinations to laugh-lines that Chastain delivers like a champ in a folksy, Minnesota accent.
“Can we talk about Satan later?”, the “aw shucks” twang in Tammy Faye’s voice making us ignore that her entire world is being flipped upside down because of weakness in the man in her life. It’s too much to say “the man she loved” because it’s not entirely clear that Jim and Tammy Faye ever truly loved anyone but themselves. But they did love the spotlight, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye ends with a razzle dazzle, bravura rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that stands in defiance of the washed-up celeb Tammy Faye was at the end of her career. No matter what life threw at her, she never let it diminish her spirit. We can debate whether her acts of kindness were enough to balance the wrong she was a part of for so long, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye is convincing that hers is a life worthy of another look with a fresh set of eyes.