Atheists would likely say that whenever someone believes God is speaking to them, it’s merely their own desires. It’s hard to dispute that when you look at the case of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or really anyone who preaches prosperity gospel. The notion that God wants you to be wealthy is a comforting thought since most of us already want to be wealthy, so it’s nice if the Almighty also signs on to this wish. But more than a desire for wealth, Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye is about a desire to be loved with love being presented as attention. The comedy/tragedy of Tammy Faye’s life, as presented here, is that she conflated worship with the need to be adored, and it created an almost childlike exchange where attention for her was good because it was ultimately attention for the Lord. Through Jessica Chastain’s terrific performance as Tammy Faye, the pathos of the character comes alive even if it comes up short in the supporting players.
Tammy Faye (Chastain) was a precocious child with a mother (Cherry Jones) who was always reluctant to give approval to her attention-seeking daughter. Rather than nurturing that spirit in her child, Tammy Faye as a child realized that church bestowed that attention if she gave herself over to its tenets. This paired well with aspiring preacher Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who had wanted to be a radio DJ in his youth, but after hitting a child with his car, made a deal with God to become a preacher if God saved the life of the child. The child lived and Jim was true to his word. While the two make good on the road as tent revivalists, their lives change when they join the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1965 and, failing to win the support of its leader Pat Robertson, move on to form their own network, Praise the Lord (PTL). While PTL rakes in millions in donations, accusations soon follow of embezzlement and grift while Tammy Faye and Jim’s marriage deteriorates as Tammy feels neglected by her husband and Jim is consumed with expanding their empire.
There are particular angles on the story that some viewers may feel get the short shrift, but Abe Sylvia’s script is focused mostly on the sad story of Tammy Faye as not a blameless woman, but one where you can argue whether her obliviousness absolves her of her faults. There’s a deep-seated need to be loved, a love she clearly never felt from her family growing up, and Tammy Faye spends the rest of her story searching for that love, and, to her credit, trying to give that love to others. She’s not a narcissist, but she does conflate attention with affection, which consistently leads to disappointment like when she doesn’t get enough attention from Jim or when she feels like her singing performances are her only outlet. And to be fair, there are times when her need for attention makes her more proactive and forces her into places in Evangelicalism where women aren’t wanted, and yet the film wisely doesn’t try to #girlboss Tammy Faye, instead opting for showing her more as a tragic figure who also participated in some dubious activities.
The breadth of these dubious activities isn’t fully explored, and perhaps shouldn’t be. This is Tammy Faye’s story, so while some may wonder why the Jessica Hahn scandal isn’t given as much attention as the embezzlement or why the film doesn’t pull back to focus more on the intersection of America and its desire for entertainment from its preachers. Sometimes The Eyes of Tammy Faye is so singularly focused on its title character that it loses sight of other issues, and while that focus on Tammy Faye does make for a fascinating and complex individual, everything else is rendered somewhat flat, particularly Jim, who, despite Garfield’s good work, largely plays as a bit slimy and needy, which, while perhaps true, is also fairly one-dimensional. The same could be said of Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio killing it, as always), who is basically the film’s heavy.
But it’s hard to mind when Chastain is doing outstanding work as Tammy Faye. The trick of the performance is that it looks like caricature, but really it’s about an individual who’s always performing. Even for her husband, Tammy Faye is donning a little “Betty Boop” voice, and that’s the transaction Tammy Faye has made with the world: if I perform for you and say I’m doing it in Jesus’ name, then you’ll love me. It’s so damn sad, and Chastain perfectly brings the emotional weight to that decision. It’s easy to note the great makeup work and how she “disappears” into the character, but the strength of the performance comes in making us care about Tammy Faye with all her complexities rather than reducing her to a greedy punchline.
Overall, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a pretty straightforward biopic with one character’s complexities on its mind when its subject could be expanded far beyond Tammy, but Showalter chooses to keep his eyes on this woman, and from that perspective the film is rewarding. Yes, The Eyes of Tammy Faye could do more, but I think it’s unfair to call it “wanting” when it excels at making us rethink about women not only in the public eye, but also this particular woman and how the values she ascribed to Christianity were in actuality her own insecurities. That’s a rich topic about how those who look to God for comfort end up enabling their own worst excesses, and the film is great when it explores that conflict through Jim and Tammy Faye’s actions. But this is really Tammy Faye’s show, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye leaves us uncomfortable with how we should feel about watching it.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is playing as part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival; the film opens in theaters on September 17th.
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