The Eyes of Tammy Faye wants to be a sympathetic portrait of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, but it succeeds more in cementing Tammy Faye’s place in the 20th century camp canon than it does reframing her as a victim of her husband’s fraud. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain and approximately 20 pounds of latex prosthetics, the cinematic rendering of Tammy Faye is as chirpy as a bird, a feel-good, good time girl for the masses, the spiritual equivalent of a cheerful aerobics instructor, shouting encouragement even as you wonder why doing exactly what they say isn’t getting you the expected results. Written by Abe Sylvia (translating Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name into narrative fiction), and directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a conventional biopic of a subject who was anything but.
Going the conventional biopic route, Eyes starts in Tammy Faye’s childhood (Chandler Head plays the young Tammy Faye), when Tammy is barred from attending church with the rest of her family because she is the product of a broken marriage. Her mother’s divorce is only “forgiven” because she plays the piano, and Tammy herself is only accepted by the congregation when she speaks in tongues and wets herself as evidence of spiritual possession. Combined with her mother’s religious rigidity and penchant for calling perfectly normal emotional expressions “performing”, young Tammy is quickly indoctrinated into a belief system that rewards hysterics with attention, and an emotional life that confuses attention for love. It’s a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what ultimately befalls Tammy, but the film never quite draws a solid line between Tammy’s early religious indoctrination and her later decisions in a religious life.
Neither Showalter, Chastain—who also serves as a producer—nor anyone else involved with the film is interested in interrogating Tammy’s faith, which is fine. She believes, and that belief, in and of itself, is not grounds for mockery. But the lack of any form of interrogation regarding the Bakker brand of prosperity gospel, and the fraud it bred, grates. The film is squarely focused on Tammy, so Jim Bakker’s fraud is talked around in a way that excuses Tammy’s presumed innocence in the whole affair, but Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield, also under a metric ton of facial prosthetics) is smarmy and cheesy and obviously not a great person from the jump. However, the film itself offers no perspective on the criminality underlying the Bakkers’ televangelism. Showalter seems most interested in enshrining Tammy Faye as a camp icon, with great attention to the trappings of Tammy Faye—her clothes, her wigs, her increasingly fantastical makeup and enhanced face. But there is no substance under that aesthetic appreciation, it’s all dressing, no turkey.
And yes, Jessica Chastain IS great as Tammy. The facial prosthetics are at times distracting, but eventually it crosses a kind of Rubicon where it starts to work for the performance, as Tammy’s appearance morphs in real life with increasingly tacky makeup and fashion. Garfield, too, delivers a fine performance from under latex, and if at times Jim and Tammy in conversation looks like two sex dolls interacting, the perverseness of the spectacle almost makes up for the film’s lack of perspective. The performances in Eyes are great across the board—Vincent D’Onofrio clearly has an opinion on Jerry Falwell and brings that to bear on his performance, which gives every second he’s on screen a bite the rest of the film lacks—and as a piece of cinematic candy, Eyes is enjoyable. It looks great, it sounds great, and the tackiness of Tammy’s life is sure to enthuse trash-aesthetes.
But under all the falsies and lipstick, there is no there there. It’s fine to present a sympathetic portrait of Tammy Faye, and her lifelong devotion to making everyone feel welcome in her brand of Christianity is certainly more admirable than the exclusionary brand preached by the likes of Jerry Falwell. But I don’t think Eyes even succeeds as a sympathetic portrait, because it renders Tammy so shallow and simplistic that she is, at best, a naïve baby, too simple to grasp even the outline of what her husband is up to until it is slapping her in the face by way of public humiliation. (At worst, she was complicit and got away with it, an idea the film absolutely refuses to entertain for even half a second.) But by rendering Tammy so basic, the film itself becomes basic. This is a run of the mill biopic with some great acting and spectacular makeup and prosthetics. Of all the interesting things it could have said about religion, evangelism, America, fraud, and how it is a direct line from televangelist grifters to our post-Trump reality, The Eyes of Tammy Faye says nothing. It offers only a trite message delivered through a gaudy microphone.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens in theaters on September 17.