TIFF 2021: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ Strikes a Bittersweet Note

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The Eyes of Tammy Faye Strange - But Why Tho

Tammy Faye Bakker (later Messner) is one of the great camp icons of the last sixty years. Her version of model Christian femininity took the form of big hair, bigger lashes, and a bigger still personality, and a love of performing. Tammy Faye was notably the wife of the prominent televangelist, Jim Bakker, who infamously made the connection between the congregation collection pot and his lining his own pocket. The couple founded the popular Christian television program, The 700 Club, and created their own heaven on Earth until Bakker’s fraud and scandals caught up with him in a modern-day fall of Eden.

In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) paints a more sympathetic picture of the woman behind the man behind the fraud. Jessica Chastain utterly transforms in the role of Tammy Faye Bakker, bringing the character an odd sort of wide-eyed innocence and charm. Showalter endeavors to humanize Bakker by way of caricature and the result is slightly off-kilter. Not unlike its subject, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a tad naive and foolish in its optimism. The film is not a true biopic, nor does it dwell in the unpleasantness of the Bakkers’ crimes. Instead, The Eyes of Tammy Faye puts the focus on the smoke and mirrors of Tammy Faye’s persona in an extremely charitable portrayal. Is this a sin? Not necessarily.

Alongside Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye stars Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker (wearing cheek prosthetics that make for an appropriately punchable visage) with performances by Cherry Jones and Vincent D’Onofrio. The film portrays Tammy Faye Bakker from her humble beginnings as a child, desperately seeking out love, to her rise to fame and wealth when she marries Jim Bakker and joins him in creating The 700 Club and building a Christian television empire. Alongside the narrative of her life is the persistent theme of Tammy Faye’s search for her place in the world. Her place as a spiritual leader and a voice for Christians. Her place at the table, among the men calling the shots in her life. Her place of peace and happiness.

Where The Eyes of Tammy Faye really excels is in its portrayal of the Bakkers and their very own Garden of Earthly Delights. The decor is cocaine. The costuming and (my GAWD) the makeup is gaudy. The entire world of the Bakkers is a perfect illustration of the to-good-to-be-true facade that they put up. The film is a looker.

The word “transform” will be heavily used in describing Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy Faye, this review will not break form. Chastain’s total character transformation is incredible. Every mannerism, every major media moment is recreated with a studied approach that never feels false. As mentioned at the outset, this take on Tammy Faye is gentle — if not a bit coddling — and focuses on Tammy Faye as a casualty of Jim Bakker’s greed. If this is a version of the events that the viewer can accept, falling in love with Chastain’s performance is inevitable.

For all of its strong points, The Eyes of Tammy Faye has one impossible to ignore failing: It neglects the most significant chapter of Tammy Faye’s story. The scandal surrounding Jim Bakker and The 700 Club was a massive moment, not just in Tammy Faye’s life, but in the modern Christian media ecosystem. This betrayal of the faithful, by false prophets in conservative media, was a huge cultural moment in America. To have it glossed over feels like a disservice to the viewer… especially, as we find ourselves in a moment in time where the Christian conservative media once again has boldly led their trusting flocks into perilous territory.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is at its best when it uses the figure of Tammy Faye Bakker as a vessel for larger themes. The film confronts the performative nature of faith and how shame associated with religion has been the favorite tool of ill-intended people. There is great commentary on gender roles within the male-dominated spaces of Christianity and business. Tammy Faye was remarkable in her life, for daring to comment on issues that others balked from. The film uses that spirit to call our attention to some of today’s most pressing culture wars… it just doesn’t have the courage to push all the way. One of the most effective elements in the film is the use of Tammy Faye’s internal monologue. In a single scene, the character will go from speaking to private thought seamlessly — making the viewer pay extra attention to the thoughts that she did not dare to voice out loud. It’s a brilliant choice, that unintentionally highlights the film’s ultimate shortcoming: having the courage to say “the quiet part” out loud.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye shows unearned mercy to its subject but does it with such style that all sins are forgiven. Ultimately, the film works better as a story of love and forgiveness than it does as a biopic. Jessica Chastain’s performance is destined to be canonized as a career great!

The Eyes of Tammy Faye screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

The Eyes of Tammy Faye shows unearned mercy to its subject but does it with such style that all sins are forgiven. Ultimately, the film works better as a story of love and forgiveness than it does as a biopic. Jessica Chastain’s performance is destined to be canonized as a career great!