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The Eyes of Tammy Faye Is Good, but Jessica Chastain Is Magnificent

Jessica Chastain wears a pink feathered robe and full makeup lying in bed, looking angry as Tammy Faye Bakker in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye'

Of all the people who could have taken on the story of televangelist Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker), I’m so glad it was Michael Showalter. The actor/writer/director is still probably best known by most for his absurd comedy (Wet Hot American Summer, Stella, etc.), but many of his film projects are sincere, heartfelt adventures in empathy (Hello, My Name Is Doris, The Big Sick). The Eyes of Tammy Faye required someone who could do both.

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The film spans multiple decades, starting in childhood and eventually requiring a mountain of prosthetics to turn Jessica Chastain into Tammy Faye as most of us picture her. The extremeness of the transformation is at times distracting, but so was Tammy herself, buried under what looked to be pounds of makeup, dressed in flashy outfits and lavish fur coats, her hair torturously teased. (Higher the hair, closer to god, after all.)

As a person, Tammy Faye challenged the world to look beyond the easily mockable near-caricature of her appearance, something few—even those closest to her—were able to fully do. Showalter does not depict Tammy as an entirely blameless or perfect saint, but he does want us to see her heart as clearly as we see her clumpy mascara and permanently tattooed lip liner, and he is successful in that mission.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bakkers’ story, it’s a hell of a ride. After meeting Jim Bakker in Bible college, the two rose from a life as traveling preachers to making successful Christian television shows, to eventually creating (and subsequently losing) their own massively successful TV empire. The film thankfully skips over large chunks of the “how” and simply dives in headfirst to the successes and equally enormous failures.

Andrew Garfield as "Jim Bakker" and Jessica Chastain as "Tammy Faye Bakker" in the film THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE.

The first half of The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a fascinating character study, told through the eyes of a complicated woman made of contrasts—all at once humbly unassuming, keenly perceptive, empathetic to her core, and also a physical spectacle of opulence.

The second half, unfortunately, is not as strong. It becomes less about Tammy as a person and more about the downfall of their empire and Jim’s misuse of ministry funds to finance their life of luxury. The film also takes a bit too light of a touch regarding the “sex scandal” that plagued the Bakkers. While it was mostly categorized by the media at the time (and beyond) as an affair, in reality, Bakker was accused of raping Jessica Hahn, a young church secretary. Abe Sylvia’s script makes a few references to it, as well as the fallout, but for the most part, the film sweeps the incident under the rug as much as the Bakkers tried to do.

This could have been a more effective choice if the film were deliberately emulating Tammy’s own state of mind, pushing out the upsetting parts of her rapidly crumbling personal and professional life. Instead, as Tammy slips further from reality thanks to a mix of prescription drug addiction and pure denial, the film becomes more neutral in its storytelling, turning into far more boilerplate biopic fare, and its back end drags.

Still, as a whole, it’s well worth a watch, in large part because of the incredible cast. There is no question that this is Jessica Chastain’s movie through and through. Her performance is nothing short of spectacular, and an Oscar nomination seems all but guaranteed (not to mention one for hair and makeup).

But there are phenomenal supporting performances, as well, mostly in Andrew Garfield’s Jim Bakker and Cherry Jones as Tammy’s unrelentingly sober and skeptical mother. And while most of the movie’s conflict comes from the actions of the protagonists themselves, Vincent D’Onofrio is absolutely terrifying as the eminently bigoted Jerry Falwell, at odds with Tammy’s more socially progressive brand of Christianity.

The fact that Falwell can barely bring himself to acknowledge the existence of a woman means that he remains mostly peripheral in this story, but still, as far as Big Bads go, Falwell is about as bad as you can get, and D’Onofrio nails the impression.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye may not be a total bullseye, but it’s a compelling look at a complex woman. And if you want a more complete picture of her life, this film would serve as a great companion in a double feature with the 2000 documentary of the same name, on which this film was based.

(images: Searchlight Pictures)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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