“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” opens with the facts. A swirl of news reports, photos, and headlines move across the screen, detailing the downfall of popular televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who built an empire throughout the 1970s and 80s with their Christian TV program “The PTL Club,” only to see it come crashing down after Jim was convicted on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy. The scandal involved Jim paying an exorbitant amount of money to a woman who claimed he raped her to keep her silent, and prompted examination of just where and how the Bakkers were able to fund their lavish South Carolina mansion, and projects like their Heritage U.S.A. theme park.
But then director Michael Showalter transitions to an extreme close-up of Tammy Faye, played by Jessica Chastain, sometime after the scandal. Later in life, one of Tammy’s trademarks became her gaudy use of make-up, which contributed to her reputation as a camp figure. Here, someone off-camera is asking Tammy to remove some of her make-up. She pats some of the lipstick off of her mouth, but says that she can’t do much more because her lip-liner is tattooed on. So is her eye-liner, and her eyebrows. When the woman off-camera asks if she can remove her enormous fake lashes, Tammy insists in her chirrupy yet firm voice that she never takes them off. “This is who I am,” she says with a little shrug.
In a way, this scene, which comes after learning the spark notes version of the Bakker scandal but before we get to actually know Tammy as a person, is prompting the audience to pass some sort of judgement on the woman before us. It might be easy for some people to write her off just based on her over-the-top appearance. Maybe it makes her seem shallow, like someone who became so devoted to her looks that she went too far, or maybe it makes her seem like she has something to hide behind the layers of make-up. Maybe this isn’t someone we should take seriously. Maybe we should even laugh at her. But her voice is kind, and so are her eyes.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which confusingly shares the name of the 2000 documentary on which it is based, struggles somewhat to reconcile all the various aspects of Tammy’s personal and professional life, but it is, fortunately, largely sympathetic to a woman who could have easily been turned into a subject of humor and ridicule. After the aforementioned two opening scenes, the movie jumps back in time to early 1950s International Falls, Minnesota, where from that point forward the story, both in form and function, follows the usual biopic beats. We see Tammy Faye as a young child (played by Chandler Head), fascinated by the church where her mom Rachel (Cherry Jones) plays piano. Rachel divorced Tammy’s father, a preacher, and married another man, which alienated them from the church, but that doesn’t stop Tammy’s devotion. And when she runs into the church one day and starts writhing on the floor in spiritual rapture, her love for showmanship in addition to God becomes apparent.
Years later, Tammy is attending North Central Bible College in Minneapolis where she meets Jim (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student. Both of them are seen as outsiders for their views on religion; Jim preaches the prosperity gospel, believing that God would want them to be rich and have what they want, and Tammy is seen as indulging too much in her appearance with the make-up she wears. The pair bond, quickly marry, and set off on the road as traveling ministers, incorporating Tammy’s singing and her puppet act for kids into their sermons. Their popularity leads them to television, where they first host a children’s show called “Jim and Tammy,” then helped found “The 700 Club,” and ultimately founded “The PTL Club,” where they were able to preach their prosperity gospel to an increasingly affluent Christian audience.
Tammy’s knowledge of and participation in Jim’s financial schemes regarding “The PTL Club” are fairly murky throughout the film. In fact, Showalter frames so much of it from Tammy’s perspective that we really only learn the bare minimum. We first learn that something is afoot when Tammy is approached about some newspaper articles questioning where her and Jim’s wealth is coming from, but she brushes it off in a way that suggests that she is aware of the issue but doesn’t see any harm in it. When she later questions Jim as to whether they are doing anything wrong, she appears to accept his non-committal response. Tammy’s supposed ignorance of a lot of what’s obviously going on feels at times like a slight to her intelligence, because it’s clear throughout the film that she is very intelligent. She knows how to sell to her audience, and she can hold her own in a room full of powerful men.
But Showalter also makes time to show the many other sides to Tammy Faye, even if the pieces don’t fit nicely together in the end. Her faith in her religion and her compassion for other people may seem at odds with her love for pricey material objects, but they are sincere. We also see how Tammy differed from her conservative peers, including Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), who often insisted on merging religion and politics. Unlike them, Tammy was an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community, especially during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when she had Steve Pieters (Randy Havens), a gay minister diagnosed with AIDS, on her show to discuss his experience. We see how she struggles with her marriage as the years ago by, and Jim becomes so wrapped up in other affairs that he barely shows her any affection, and how she starts abusing pills. And just when she hits rock bottom, we see her rise back up, finding her voice again outside of Jim and “The PTL Club.”
All of this, interspersed with scenes of Tammy belting out songs clad in glittery outfits and layers of make-up, feels like both a lot and not enough. We hit all the emotional highs and lows, we get all the montages to hurry us through the years in all the right places, but the film frequently feels torn between being a serious story about a woman in turmoil and an over-the-top tale of two larger-than-life personalities. The result is an interesting story that comes off as generic. It doesn’t help that Tammy, whose appearance undergoes a radical change as time goes on, is portrayed against a backdrop of actors whose aging makeup is not given the same consideration. Garfield gets some gray hairs and a wrinkle here and there, and players like Tammy’s mother and Jerry Falwell don’t age at all even when a couple of decades have supposedly passed. The inconsistency in the makeup is odd to say the least.
Garfield is fine as Jim, although his constantly scowling starts to dominate his performance and robbing it of any nuance as the film progresses. This is really Chastain’s movie through and through, and fortunately, even though she does undergo a jaw-dropping physical transformation over the course of the movie, she doesn’t let her appearance do all the work. When Tammy is performing for an audience, Chastain plays her up with gleeful abandon, but in Tammy’s quieter moments, she shows the hurt, uncertainty, and courage it takes for her to get through the day. It’s thanks in large part to Chastain that Tammy comes off not as a caricature, but as a human we can emphasize with. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” may not reinvent the biopic formula, but it does further cement Jessica Chastain as one of the greatest actors working today.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13.