Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye is the kind of film that depends upon two key elements: the performances, and its story. If one of these things didn’t work, or either, the film would be a failure. Seeing as the jury appears to be out on this film, maybe these elements didn’t work for people. Because if these elements aren’t of interest, then the film just feels like a game of cinematic dress-up, with prosthetics that just seem nutty if the film isn’t working for you. As is, the first act of the film didn’t work for me at all, but eventually it finds its footing and becomes a pretty engrossing yarn.
If you’ve seen the trailers for this film, it’s probably known by now that Jessica Chastain is giving it her all in the title role. And, well, here I am to confirm that she does, indeed, give it her all. At first, I wasn’t quite convinced, if mostly due to the first 30 minutes or so. Yet the deeper you get into the film and the more make-up is added to Chastain, the more you’re given to work with. A performance like this can go a couple of ways. In one hand, yes, it’s a transformation, because people are being buried in make-up. Yet you have to act in order to live through the make-up. You can’t let the make-up define the performance, or else you’re just flailing your arms with nutty make-up on, and the make-up gets in the way of the acting. Chastain, I think at least, breaks through, because not only does she pretty much vanish in the make-up, but she acts the hell out of this role. She is the key to the film’s success, and is very worthy of Academy recognition.
This was a story I was unaware of, and so I didn’t go into The Eyes of Tammy Faye with really any knowledge of Tammy Faye Bakker, nor had I seen the documentary in which this film is based on. So I simply judged the film as a piece of entertainment, and as such, the film is a success. Sure, it might’ve benefitted from having screenwriters like Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood, Ed Wood) on board, in that they have this gift with making any unusual story ridiculously entertaining. That’s just the thing about this film though: the material writes itself. There is something about televangelism that is weird to grasp, and Showalter and co. certainly exploit this, and yet, despite whatever mockery is on display, they do seem to have an affection for their flawed but good-hearted heroine.
The film opens in the 1950’s, where we see young Tammy Faye living in a very small town in which her mother (Cherry Jones, somewhat brief but strong), who has her own controversies because she’s divorced and re-married, won’t let her attend. Ah yes, this was a controversy in the 50’s. At a young age, Tammy feels the holy spirit, but her mother forbids her from attending church. Alas, the holy spirit cannot hold her down, so eventually Tammy enters the church and speaks tongues (?) and is taken in with open arms. Cut to years later where we see her in Bible college, where she takes an instant liking to Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). The two bond through the Bible and eventually marry, leaving Bible college and deciding to hit the road preach the gospel from state to state. This is the portion of the film I didn’t enjoy. These sequences made me squirm, because I couldn’t tell if Showalter was trying to depict these people or mock them. Seeing as I had a feel for how the story was going to unfold, it felt as if the filmmakers were mocking them, simply because of their beliefs. The Bakkers are almost cartoonishly religious, and sure, maybe in the 1950’s, people were this wholesome, square and goofy… but it just sort of rubbed me the wrong way.
With that said though, you do need this portion of the movie to get a sense of just who the Bakkers are, and the film does take off once the actual story begins to unfold. One afternoon, the two are about hit the road again when they discover their car has been stolen. They join hand in prayer, and a kind stranger tells them that he loved their sermon, and that he’s very good friends with Pat Robertson, the leading televangelist in perhaps the world. They are introduced to him, and are surprised to see what is honestly a bizarre image: he owns a huge mansion, his wife is dressed in a mink coat. There is something kind of bizarre about televangelism: you’re on TV, spreading the word of the lord… yet you’re gaining celebrity status and asking for money to keep not only keep the show going, but to keep your celebrity status going? It’s strange to me, but it’s certainly ripe material for a movie, and if you haven’t seen HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, you might want to.
Anyways, eventually Jim Bakker takes off, making friends with Robertson and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Tammy joins Jim on his show, singing and basically having their own version of a talk show. Yet once Tammy becomes pregnant and the more and more money they gain, the more the two of them seem to drift apart as a couple. Are they really even still in it for the Lord, or are they more interested in the money the Lord is supposedly bringing their way? I won’t dive into all of the details of the story, but it’s very easy to see why Showalter, who made the excellent The Big Sick, wanted to make a film out of this. It’s pretty nutty, seeing two hugely religious people gaining celebrity status just for spreading the gospel. They have their own network, their own show, their own mansion. They even plan on building their own amusement park. Believe it or not, this isn’t even the kookiest aspect of the story, but it’s certainly one of them.
What’s tricky about The Eyes of Tammy Faye is that I wasn’t always sure if the filmmakers were mocking these two, or painting them in a good light. The verdict I’ve reached is… both, yet depending on who you are, you’ll either see it as a mockery or a retelling, and that will either cause the film to sink or swim for you. In ways, it is mocking them, but is it mocking THEM, or is it mocking HIM? Because the filmmakers have every right to mock Jim Bakker. Garfield isn’t getting quite as much attention as Chastain is for this film, but he really does a great job of getting under your skin. He’s smarmy, slimy, and maybe he was a good person once, but he’s more than let the celebrity power get in the way of the Holy spirit.
That’s not to say that Tammy Faye is totally innocent- she too had no problem letting the power of money get in the way. Yet the film is mostly sympathetic towards her. We might not always like her, but I felt for her. I felt for her as people mocked her make-up, and as Jim became cold and distant toward her. As people looked down at her for being a ditsy idiot. Even after the truth comes to light about the Bakkers, I sensed a goofy but wholesome woman in Tammy Faye, and that’s kind of the beauty of Chastain’s work here. Chastain really turns this performance up to 11. She sings, and she has charm. Yet when she turns on the emotions, I felt them with her. Take, for example, a scene where she is talking with an AIDS patient on TV, pretty well aware that the homophobic Falwell will blow a gasket if he sees it. Chastain is able to sort of capture the sincerity of this woman, and while at first I sensed that she was set out to make a mockery of her, by the end (which, the final scene is great), I felt Chastain’s affection for Tammy’s affection.
I like this film. I like the film as entertainment, and for its performances. I also think its production values, from its production and costume design to its make-up, is pretty strong. After about the thirty minute mark, The Eyes of Tammy Faye told a story that pretty thoroughly held me in its grip. This isn’t a great biopic, and it certainly won’t work for everyone. Some believe that the film is a freak show; a big, Oscar-baity uneven make-up filled mess. I believe in Chastain, who gives her best performance in years.