Extravagant and charming, but with some bumps along the way, this is a biopic that fits its subject that is larger than life.
By Meg Shields and Anna Swanson · Published on September 15, 2021
This review of The Eyes of Tammy Faye is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to checklists, stay tuned for all things TIFF 2021.
We hope none of you reading this keep kosher because this movie is full of ham. Tammy Faye’s eyes is as flamboyant, charming and flawed as his subject. Anchored by a unique leading performance by Jessica Chastain, the cinema is also thoroughly enjoyable despite its adherence to expected and hob genre conventions.
Chastain portrays Tammy Faye Baker, the eccentric TV angel, from aspiring preacher to tabloid cover girl. As a young woman, her unwavering faith leads her to North Central Bible College, where she falls head over heels for Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a soft-spoken charmer who believes that God wants people to have fun and be rich. The couple share an unbridled ambition to seriously merge faith and entertainment, which takes the form of wildly popular television programming that brings the Church’s vitality into people’s living rooms. But in the end, personal and financial scandals lead to problems in paradise.
The sensational story of Bakker’s fall from literal grace will surely capture those familiar with and / or fascinated by American religious fundamentalism. In 1989, Jim Bakker was indicted, convicted, and imprisoned on a long list of frauds and conspiracies, leading to the dissolution of their multi-million dollar empire. Tammy Faye’s eyes depicts a story of an American dream adorned with rhinestones and crucifixes. What, after all, could it be more American than rejoicing in ill-gotten gains while preaching the gospel of divinely sanctioned prosperity?
The biopic is directed by Michael Showalter (The great sick) and based on the 2000 documentary of the same name. Like its source material, the film focuses on Tammy Faye Baker’s personal faith, her strangeness in the evangelist boys’ club, and the looming fusion of conservative politics and Christianity in 1980s America. The result is a uniformly visible portrait that captures Tammy Faye’s unique spark as well as her involvement in one of the country’s most notorious fraud cases.
Chastain’s work in the film alone is worth the price for filming. Her performance could easily have been supported by something other than dentures and a fun accent. But Chastain’s conviction and obvious love for his subject shines through all that latex. Her Tammy Faye is airy, strong-willed and infectiously compassionate. Her physical transformation is at times distracting, however any attempt to cut around in the play to Tammy Faye Bakker would undermine why her story catches on in the first place.
Like Jim Bakker, Garfield obviously has an absolute blast. He navigates Jim’s ambitions, sensitivity and cowardice without outright corruption. He’s a scammer without evilness, confused and tingling, but by no means a charlatan slipping snake oil. Cherry Jones and Vincent D’Onofrio are both fantastic in supporting roles such as Tammy’s strict mother Rachel and the conservative TV Englishman Jerry Falwell Sr. Jones in particular brings a tender resemblance to a Midwestern matriarch who cannot wrap his head around his daughter’s purposeful search for the limelight.
Tammy Faye’s eyes clearly comes from a place of love that helps maintain its sense of campiness throughout. But it feels like missing a bite. Granted, there is a fine line between edge and cynicism, especially given the fact that this could easily have swung too far in laughter on Tammy Faye. However, if you aim a little too far to one side, the film allows you to avoid getting naughty or hitting too hard in the wrong direction, however, the filmmakers have chosen the best of two options.
For all the glitz, glam, intrigue and deception, there are a handful of tender scenes spiced up throughout the film that end up being the moments that linger. For example, after his mother’s funeral, Tammy Faye sits on the benches with her stepfather, Fred (Fredric Lehne). Together they lighten the mood and remind. It’s a short scene with a character found in the periphery of the story, but it’s a really sweet and human moment that justifies Tammy Faye’s eyesare more strange impulses.
The film covers several decades and several chapters in Tammy Faye’s life and has a lot on its plate. For the most part, it does an admirable job of touching on the central aspects of Tammy Faye’s story. But with its generally light tone and the limits of a two-hour maturity, there is no way it could have captured it all.
An integral part of Tammy Faye’s story is her support for the LGBTQ + community and her groundbreaking support and empathy for those living with AIDS. Her interview with Steven Pieters (Randy Havens), a gay Christian AIDS activist, is accurately portrayed in the film and forms one of its more memorable scenes. It is a touching moment whose significance will be immediately understood even by those without prior knowledge of Tammy Faye’s outreach at the height of the AIDS crisis. However, this aspect of her life could still have been highlighted more prominently throughout.
There are times when the film confuses the message of whether Tammy Faye’s support for the LGBTQ + community stems from her sincere conviction or motivated by her desire to differentiate herself from the more extreme and politically reactionary coercive lists, especially Falwell. Those who know Tammy Faye know that the answer is first. However, by taking a closer look at the details of her alliance, the film leaves the door open for her queer activism to appear fabricated and unauthentic.
Ultimately, given Tammy Faye’s greater personality than her life, her vast legacy, and the vast spectrum of experiences throughout her career, there is only so much that a movie theater can cover in length. The film chooses narrative breadth over depth, leaving Chastain’s notion to fill in the nuances of the subject. She is ready for the task and will certainly emerge as a worthy Oscar pioneer. As for well-meaning but deficient biopics, Tammy Faye’s eyes would constitute one of the better award seasons.
Related topics: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor to Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That ?, and Horrorscope. She is also the curator of One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. I can find screams about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She her).