She was a person of humble means who then made and lost a fortune, one half of a pioneering couple responsible for building a televangelism empire, a wife and a mother, a devoted disciple of Christ and even bigger believer in the power of puppetry to spread the Good Word. But you likely remember Tammy Faye Bakker, if you remember her at all, for her eyes. Specifically, the kilometer-long lashes that framed those famous high-beam peepers, and the coal-black streaks of mascara that would run down her lids to her cheeks once the Niagara Falls of tears inevitably started. It’s the indelible image of Tammy Faye, a woman smiling bravely into the camera and standing by her man Jim Bakker, while her make-up plays the part of Dorian Gray’s portrait, turning all that psychic anguish into streaming, gloopy rivulets.
That picture of the post-scandal(s) Bakkers is what more or less resides in the collective memory banks, filed under “1980s trivia” next to Rubik’s Cubes, Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony and a coquettish Brooke Shields in blue jeans. The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the 2000 documentary from Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, filled in a number of blanks about the Mrs. Bakker’s life and put her status as an LGBTQ hero (as well as a highly camp icon) front and center. And now, two decades later, we get the biopic version from director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), which borrows its name from the nonfiction take while amping up the irony and the ecstasy of it all. Not to mention the high kitsch factor that characterized Jim and Tammy Faye’s heyday, from their ’60s kids’ show on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia to their own massive PTL (Praise the Lord) Satellite Network in the ’70s and ’80s. So many polyester pants suits and lavish, luxurious furs! Such glorious wall-to-wall-shag carpeting! So. Much. Hair!!
You’ll get lots of glorious oh-my-god moments regarding couture and decor in this Eyes of Tammy Faye — if nothing else, it’s a movie that gives great cringe. These things are also a good distraction as we go on the usual greatest-hits-and-misses death march that ends, inevitably, in a fall from grace. Here’s young Tammy, faux-speaking in tongues during a revival meeting, much to the horror of her pious mother (Cherry Jones). Here’s college-age Tammy (Jessica Chastain), held in thrall by her charismatic, maverick fellow student, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who preaches “eternal life, eternal love, eternal wealth.” (The notion is a turn-on to both of them; sex and salvation are lumped together from the get-go here.) Here’s Tammy trying to get a seat at the men’s table where overlord Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) holds court after The 700 Club makes Jim a breakout star. Here are Jim and Tammy Faye enjoying the opulent fruits of their electric-church labors, and their respective sex scandals — yes, she had one, too — and their tearful TV confessions about how persecuted they are, if only the parishioners could increase their donations, praise Jesus.
It’s all very predictable, down to when and where the montages show up, the end-credits roll call of the real-life figures involved and how the arc winds its way toward a queasy, delusional yet somehow upbeat sense of redemption for our heroine. Certain scenes stand out — Tammy Faye’s interview with Steven Pieters, the gay minister who was afflicted with AIDS, on her fundamentalist TV show feels more affecting because of how straightforward the movie presents their conversation, at least until the handwringing over giving “sinners” a platform goes into overdrive — while whole segments of the film will fade from your memory before you can say “hallelujah.” Any points about how the notion of Religious Media Inc. helped galvanize and empower the Christian Right are lost deep in the mix; the hypocrisy of bilking people for money in order to “save” their souls almost feels quaint when you put it side by side with what the Republican Death Cult Party of the last five years have put us through. Every beat feels predetermined to a fault. Every performance fall somewhere between “fine” and “like we just said, fine.” Every performance except one, however, and given that it’s the only one that really matters here, that counts for a lot.
Jessica Chastain isn’t just the reason to seek out The Eyes of Tammy Faye — she’s the only reason to see this curiously tepid biopic at all. It’s tempting, if sourly pessimistic, to think this movie exists simply to give the Oscar-nominated actor a chance to tweak the last half of that phrase to “-winning,” as if this kind of prosthetics-and-crying-jags role was set up with one eye already on the gold. But Chastain isn’t one to phone things in. Even as the script keeps throwing clichébombs at her, she gamely soldiers, doing her best to flesh out Tammy Faye past the point of our own previously held opinions of this woman. The movie clearly wants to humanize this former figure of ridicule, but can’t seem to find the dimensions or the means to do it. Chastain persists nonetheless, forcing viewers to recognize that, beneath the chirpy voice and caricaturish makeup and tripling down on faith when the facts present a far less rosy picture, was someone who deserved not just pity or scorn, but sympathy. She almost makes a believer out of you.
The fact that, buried under layers of latex jowls and personality quirks that would seem like a parody if we didn’t clearly recognize them as Tammy Faye-isms, Chastain has to rely mostly on her eyes to get so much of this across is the richest of ironies. It’s a performance that occasionally makes you go, “Holy shit!” The rest of the movie? It’s content to merely go to hell in a handbasket.