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 recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
We hope none of you reading this keeps kosher because this movie is full of ham. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is as flamboyant, charming, and flawed as its subject. Anchored by an exceptional leading performance by Jessica Chastain, the biopic is also thoroughly enjoyable despite its adherence to expected and boilerplate genre conventions.
Chastain portrays Tammy Faye Baker, the eccentric televangelist, 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 shares an unbridled ambition to earnestly merge faith and entertainment, which takes the shape of wildly popular television programming that brings the vibrancy of the Church into people’s living rooms. But eventually, personal and financial scandals lead to trouble in paradise.
The sensational story of the Bakkers’ fall from literal grace is sure to captivate those familiar with and/or fascinated by American religious fundamentalism. In 1989, Jim Bakker was indicted, convicted, and imprisoned on a long list of fraud and conspiracy charges, leading to the dissolution of their multimillion-dollar ministry empire. The Eyes of Tammy Faye depicts a story of an American Dream decked out in rhinestones and crucifixes. What, after all, could be more American than reveling in ill-gotten gains while preaching the gospel of divinely sanctioned prosperity?
The biopic is directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and based on the 2000 documentary of the same name. Like its source material, the movie focuses on Tammy Faye Bakker’s personal faith, her oddity in the evangelist boys club, and the looming merger of conservative politics and Christianity in 1980s America. The result is a uniformly watchable portrait that captures Tammy Faye’s unique spark as well as her complicity in one of the country’s most notorious fraud cases.
Chastain’s work in the movie is worth the price of admission alone. Her performance could easily have been supported by nothing more than prosthetics and a funny accent. But Chastain’s conviction and obvious affection for her subject shine through all that latex. Her Tammy Faye is airheaded, strong-willed, and contagiously compassionate. Her physical transformation is at times distracting, but any attempt to skirt around the spectacle of Tammy Faye Bakker would undermine why her story captivates in the first place.
As Jim Bakker, Garfield is obviously having an absolute blast. He navigates Jim’s ambition, sensitivity, and cowardice without outright vilification. He’s a fraudster without malice, confused and sniveling but by no means a charlatan peddling snake oil. Cherry Jones and Vincent D’Onofrio are both fantastic in supporting roles as Tammy’s stern mother Rachel and the conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., respectively. Jones, in particular, brings a tender likeability to a Midwestern matriarch who cannot wrap her head around her daughter’s determined quest for the limelight.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye clearly comes from a place of love, which helps maintain its sense of campiness throughout. But it does feel lacking in bite. Granted, there’s a fine line between edge and cynicism, especially considering the fact that this could have easily veered too far into laughing at Tammy Faye. If aiming slightly too far to one side allows the movie to avoid getting mean or punching too hard in the wrong direction, however, the filmmakers have chosen the better of two options.
For all the glitz, glam, intrigue, and fraud, there are a handful of tender scenes peppered throughout the movie that wind up being the moments that linger. For instance, after her mother’s funeral, Tammy Faye sits in the pews with her stepfather, Fred (Fredric Lehne). Together, they lighten the mood and reminisce. It’s a brief scene with a character who exists at the periphery of the story, but it’s a genuinely sweet and human moment that grounds The Eyes of Tammy Faye‘s more outlandish impulses.
Covering several decades and multiple chapters in Tammy Faye’s life, the movie has a lot on its plate. For the most part, it does an admirable job of touching on the key aspects of Tammy Faye’s story. But with its generally light tone and the limits of a two-hour run time, there’s 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 relayed in the movie and makes for one of its more memorable scenes. It’s a touching moment whose importance will be immediately understood even by those without any prior knowledge of Tammy Faye’s outreach at the height of the AIDS crisis. However, this aspect of her life still could have been featured more prominently throughout.
There are times when the movie muddles the message of whether Tammy Faye’s support of the LGBTQ+ community is coming from her sincere beliefs or motivated by her desire to distinguish herself from the more extreme and politically reactionary televangelists, particularly Falwell. Those familiar with Tammy Faye know the answer is the former. By glazing over the specifics of her allyship, though, the movie leaves the door open for her queer activism to come across as manufactured and inauthentic.
Ultimately, considering Tammy Faye’s larger-than-life persona, her vast legacy, and the grand spectrum of experiences throughout her career, there is only so much that a feature-length biopic can cover. The movie opts for narrative breadth over depth, leaving Chastain’s performance to fill in the nuances of its subject. She’s up for the task and will surely emerge as a worthy Oscar frontrunner. As far as well-meaning but flawed biopics go, The Eyes of Tammy Faye would make for one of the better awards season darlings.
Related Topics: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)