The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens with a terrific, slow zoom out on the titular pair of jewels nesting on Tammy Faye Bakker’s somewhat frightening visage in her later years, the face of a woman who’s so committed to holding on to her younger self that she’s permanently etched on herself forever eyebrows and lips in black lining, not to mention the fake eyelashes she’s worn since her college days. This opening salvo, a moment in time in the back half of Faye Bakker’s tumultuous life, is a testament to the performance to come by Jessica Chastain, a full embodiment of a real person, a type of role we’ve grown accustomed to wowing and showering with praise. The first five minutes are a tale of two films, and speak to the rest of the picture’s qualities and cliches in equal measure. Following such a sublime introduction is a pretty typical flashback to her childhood years growing up in a rural, devoutly religious small town under the critical gaze of her domineering mother (Cherry Jones). If you’ve seen Walk Hard, you know what Hollywood already knows: these are decades-old cliches. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a standard, somewhat unexamined biopic elevated to further heights by Chastain’s lively turn and an occasionally, delightfully absurdist tone.
Tammy Faye stands in stark contrast to other Christians in her orbit, the knowing hypocrites and craven climbers of body politic. As played by Chastain, she is the genuine article, a titan of religiosity who truly cares for her fellow man, including those ostracized from society. Though it is pedestrian in set-up and execution, that brief glimpse of her childhood is important for one reason: explaining her eventual ability and willingness to empathize with the LGBTQ community and its ex-communication from many churches and most circles of Christianity. She goes out of her way to stick up for the community amid the 80’s AIDS crisis, in spite of the impending judgement of Reverend Jerry Fallwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio). A scene between Faye and AIDS victim Steve Pieters (Randy Havens) illustrates the lengths to which she was willing to circumvent her television network’s typical leanings and separate herself from the televangelist pack in order to shine a spotlight on this minority group in turmoil. Her problem, and ultimately her husband Jim Bakker’s problem, was she had no qualms about earning money and exacting riches off of preaching the good book. Michael Showalter’s film, an effort to graduate from comedy to Oscar-baiting “big time,” is primarily concerned with preaching to the choir the myriad of ways in which televangelism and fundamentalist Christianity swindles its millions of followers in the United States of America. Showalter is seemingly distracted, however, by the personal romantic foibles of the famed couple, often skirting thornier topics and conversations that were likely had around the dinner table between the Bakkers, Fallwells, and more. There are tiny hints and truth bombs snuck in during golf and garish tea parties, but they’re few and far between compared to the soapy backstage drama which followed Jim and Tammy on their tumultuous journey as a married couple.
Showalter’s knack for absurdist comedy benefits and buoys the script’s humorous proclivities, turning what could have been a staid narrative about two swindlers into something nearly approaching satire. When Jim says “the devil’s coming for me, Tammy” and she replies “can we talk about Satan later, Jim?” you know you’re watching a film self-aware of the inherently silly figures at its epicenter. These folks live and breathe the “love of God,” often eschewing rhetoric about Christ in favor of appealing to either old testament God or new testament God. Fallwell may be “fighting for the soul of the nation,” but the Bakkers are fighting a losing battle for the soul of their faith, attempting to win over converts via understanding and forgiveness while their more close-minded superiors only know tradition and the “good old days.” The Bakkers’ willingness to follow the herd and appease Fallwell is what inevitably creates a rift between them, Tammy’s strong will and progressive stances locking horns with Jim’s weak-kneed greed and closeted insecurities. While Chastain disappears, her cheeks squared off to mirror Faye’s blocky head, Garfield fights his own losing battle with exaggerated makeup which often resembles an SNL sketch. Presumably, he wasn’t asked to gain weight for fear of the actor losing Bakker’s feeble lankiness. If Jim Bakker’s jowls were so important to his persona, then perhaps an alternative casting choice was necessary to avoid such artificialities. Garfield is forced to adopt a breathy, campy performance style, as if hampered by the makeup or perhaps even encouraged by it to go big in comparison to those around him. He has his moments, however, such as when their marriage reaches a boiling point in their middle years and Jim finally feels free to be honest about what he thinks of her. The actor has always been astute about conveying rage as a result of concealed resentments (see The Social Network) boiling over.
The last ten minutes may be the best in the entire film, finding Tammy Faye at her lowest and angling desperately for a comeback on television. At this point Chastain’s performance borders on mannered imitation, but it doesn’t matter when she takes the stage to belt out a patriotic song for a Christian college, at once showering us with her talent (and real voice) and leaving us on a high note. The moment is two-fold: confirming her as a potential Best Actress nominee and, one last time, floating the notion that as long as there’s money to be made and power to reap, Christianity will continue to be woven into the fabric of this country in manners both malevolent and benevolent. Above all, until the “God” in “God and country” can be excised from our collective idea of American patriotism, the United States will continue divided along social, religious, and political fault lines. The Eyes of Tammy Faye only flirts with such notions, never committing to them wholeheartedly. While watching, one suspects Chastain is doing more than flirting, and that is why she alone has made this a picture worth diving into for, if nothing else, a great performance which illuminates an enduring subculture.