Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Credit Searchlight Pictures

Chastain gives Oscar-worthy performance in evangelist Tammy Faye biopic

There is a dissonance between the portrayal of Tammy Faye and the toxic, corrupt televangelist scheme of which she was undeniably a part.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

  • Drama, Biopic | PG-13 | 2 hr 6 min
  • Exclusively In Theaters 

By Reed Ripley

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is mostly fine, but it is also mostly unessential for those moviegoers outside Oscar-nominee completists and big fans of biopics. 

In the film, Jessica Chastain stars as Tammy Faye Bakker, who, along with her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), drops out of seminary school to travel the country and spread the gospel through a combination of puppetry and charm. The Bakkers become the biggest televangelists in the world, but the gilded façade eventually topples amidst a storm of corruption and fraud, and the Bakkers fall as quickly as they rose. 

The film is the latest in a long line of dyed in the wool Oscar contender biopics that seemingly exist to provide a vehicle for an actor’s transformation into a historical figure. Recent examples include Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill), Christian Bale in Vice (Dick Cheney), and Renee Zellweger in Judy (Judy Garland). Often, these films’ total emphasis on the lead role does not leave room for much else, and Tammy Faye is no different. 

There is nothing particularly good about the film outside Chastain’s performance. None of the cast surrounding Chastain contribute much; Garfield never quite clicks as Jim Bakker, and Cherry Jones (as Tammy Faye’s mother) and Vincent D’Onofrio (as Jerry Falwell Sr.) are not given enough space to make an impact, among others. Likewise, the film attempts to tell the story of the rise of televangelism in the 70s and 80s through Tammy Faye’s particular story, but the former storyline never acquires teeth. 

There is also a dissonance between the portrayal of Tammy Faye and the toxic, corrupt televangelist scheme of which she was undeniably a part. Jim Bakker is ultimately painted as the mastermind behind the Bakkers’ scheme to collect tens of millions of dollars from “partners” in Praise the Lord Network’s congregation, with Tammy Faye as another victim of Bakker’s who just wanted to spread God’s love through song and spirit. The film is ostensibly a bid at redemption for its titular televangelist, but it never has Tammy Faye truly reckon with her part in the scheme, instead using Jim as a full scapegoat. 

However, like the three Oscar-nominated performances mentioned, Chastain’s turn as Tammy Faye is ultimately worthy of admiration. Real-life Tammy Faye Bakker, with her permanent makeup, rotating stable of wigs and sparkle dresses, and over-the-top delivery, was already a caricature without cinematic treatment, and portraying her on the screen could have easily gotten cartoony. Chastain avoids this and succeeds in humanizing the character, thanks in part to the excellent makeup and hairstyling, which helps Chastain show Tammy Faye’s noticeable physical and mental transformation and deterioration over the course of 30 years. 

October is approaching, and with it, Oscar hopefuls are starting to pop up. The Eyes of Tammy Faye hopes to count itself among them, and although it likely will not challenge for many statuettes, at least Chastain can count on an awards campaign. 

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