When viewers are first introduced to Tammy Faye Bakker, it’s 1994.
She’s caked in layers of makeup, some of which are permanently tattooed onto her face. Her cheeks are bloated as she sucks down a can of Diet Coke and her nasally, Betty Boop-esque voice pierces through like nails on a chalkboard.
If this is a sign of things to come, things aren’t looking good for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, director Michael Showalter’s latest film and a biopic drama about the infamous 80s televangelist and her husband Jim’s rise to prominence and fall from grace.
But the film succeeds wholly on the back of Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, who takes Tammy Faye as an innocent, precocious ingenue and carries her through decades of blind faith, tribulations and an unrelenting warmth with open arms and an open heart.
In traditional biopic fashion, The Eyes of Tammy Faye reverts back to her youth as a child of divorce in a church system that viewed her as both a memory of her mother’s shame and as a prodigy of evangelism. As she meets Jim Bakker in college and swiftly marries him to start a career as traveling preachers together, Showalter and Chastain slowly build up Tammy Faye beyond the possibility of caricature while simultaneously adding layers of makeup to mask the pain she hides from everyone around her.
Her performance is electric and always on the forefront, elevating Tammy Faye’s larger than life personality with a midwestern charm and an endless devotion to people that would come off as fake or put on in the hands of an actress not engulfed by Tammy Faye’s spirit the way Chastain is here. There’s an enthusiasm to every element from the singing Chastain records herself to the countless small interactions Tammy Faye has with minor characters that make things feel authentically as if the present moment is the most important thing in Tammy Faye’s life.
Andrew Garfield is an interesting, yet solid choice to play Jim Bakker as the chemistry he has on screen with Chastain doesn’t quite feel right most of the time but that also feels accurate to Jim and Tammy Faye’s relationship in general. Garfield sees considerably less screen time and isn’t given much opportunity to develop Jim as a character, but what comes across very strongly across his performance is a quirky charm that draws Tammy Faye in and slowly twists into something much more deceptive.
There’s a constant feeling that Jim is hiding something from Tammy Faye, whether that be financial troubles or his wavering sexuality, and this could easily be overplayed. Garfield deliberately makes choices that push Jim to the edge of something but never falls over. It’s a terrific balance he finds in showing cracks in Jim’s persona while leaving everyone in the dark about his true motivations.
Cherry Jones does a solid job as Tammy Faye’s religious, moderately disapproving mother, though the secondary scene stealer is unquestionably Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as Rev. Jerry Falwell, who he imbues with a presence that can be felt well before Falwell walks into a room and long after he leaves.
His Falwell is like a mob boss for the Christian conservative movement of the 1980s, menacing not in his actions but in his softly spoken, sharply chosen words that allow D’Onofrio plenty of room to chew the scenery in the best possible way.
A different film might have more closely examined how Tammy Faye’s increasing celebrity status molded the bright, always-on persona she portrayed on screen into something so ingrained in her that she could never turn it off to grief or feel hurt.
But The Eyes of Tammy Faye attempts to convince its viewers of her relative naivety to Jim’s illegal activities and her disinterest in confronting accusations that he may have had affairs with men. Jim’s one-time dalliance and payoff to secretary Jessica Hahn is only briefly mentioned, almost as an aside to help explain the Bakker scandal and downfall.
It’s a concerted decision by Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia to keep viewers’ attention so narrowly focused through Tammy Faye’s point of view that significant gaps in the storytelling emerge with everything that Jim is doing just outside the frame. This helps root audiences firmly in Tammy Faye’s corner but leaves a lot to be desired from an overall cinematic perspective.
The film wants to be a lot of different things at one – serious character driven drama, a comprehensive biopic of Tammy Faye’s life, a subtly piercing dark comedy – and Showalter struggles to keep things from swaying back and forth between these elements. Technical aspects of the film are exceptionally well done; the production design firmly plants viewers inside the 1980s better than most films looking back on the era and the makeup/hair design makes tremendous sense when compared to the real subjects.
From an awards perspective, it’s difficult to see the film earning nominations outside of Chastain’s brilliance in the title role and while this performance is significantly better than Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-winning turn as Judy Garland in Judy two years ago, it’s unlikely that Chastain will have anything more than an outsider’s chance to receive a nomination in spite of how much she probably deserves an outright win.
Audiences who remember the Bakker controversies should find themselves transported back to that period while younger viewers will certainly gravitate to Chastain’s singular, masterful performance. The Eyes of Tammy Faye” may not end up on a top 10 list at the end of 2020, but it’s certainly one worth seeking out in theaters.