Armed with minimal knowledge about the film itself, I headed into my viewing of biographical dramedy The Eyes of Tammy Faye ready to see Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield knock it out of the park. Chronicling the rise and fall of the most famous televangelist couple of all time, Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker, the excess and extravagance of the lifestyle the duo creates for themselves is fascinating to watch unfold in a decades-spanning dramatic saga. Screenwriter Abe Sylvia adapts the 2000 documentary of the same name with an assured hand that allows for show-stopping moments of musicality, and intimate character drama in equal measure. As a big fan of both leads, I was stunned by their work here. Chastain disappears and completely becomes Tammy Faye, while Garfield plays a greedy talk show host for the second time this year after Mainstream.
While the film does, of course, explore the heyday of the 70s and 80s for the Bakkers, we start off diving deep into Tammy’s history all the way back to 1952. As a young girl, her mother forbid her from attending church with the rest of the family (she was the eldest of eight children) simply because her mother had divorced, and the sight of Tammy was a constant reminder of her sin. Eventually, she infiltrates her way in by sneaking in and having a literal religious awakening in front of the entire church group; only her mother is appalled. In 1960, Tammy meets Jim preaching, and they have an instant connection. In a hilarious moment, Jim reveals to her that he always wanted to be a radio DJ, but he hit a boy with his car (“poor Jimmy Summerfield’s ruptured lung!”) and made a promise to God that he would spread the gospel. The duo hatches a simple plan to be traveling preachers—she will sing, and Jim will preach. Their popularity begins to skyrocket, as they create a puppet show to go with it. Things really take off after their car is stolen, and a chance meeting with someone who attended their show leads to a stint on television over at CBN, the Christian Broadcast Network.
The more popular they get, the more Jim craves expansion. He becomes a self-appointed “builder for Christ,” helping their brand grow monstrously large, as Tammy spreads her messages of love and acceptance and wears expensive flashy clothes. Soon enough, the Praise the Lord Network is born out of Jim’s clashes with the CBN. Jim and Tammy want to build their brand together, and of course it becomes a rousing success. However, as the bills pile up, the stresses of expanding begin to wear on their marriage. Jim and Tammy, the picture-perfect couple, don’t quite seem as such behind closed doors. Scandals and financial concerns loom their ugly head in the face of becoming a bonafide brand for Christians everywhere. “The secular press hates us because we’re winning millions of souls for Jesus,” Tammy explains to her mother at one point. I will not spoil the remainder of the film, but suffice to say it is truly one wildly entertaining ride.
I must preface the remainder of this review for Michael Showalter’s splendid and vibrant The Eyes of Tammy Faye by mentioning that as far as religious background is concerned, I was raised with simply a basic structure in belief in God and nothing else. To this day, people overtly devoted to religion, particularly Christians, tend to strike me the wrong way in terms of their steadfast devotion to hatred over love, shunning anything that seems different. The Eyes of Tammy Faye proves that all religious figures are not this way; merely, their stance is entirely variant on a person-to-person basis. Tammy Faye herself has become an LGBT+ icon for good reason—she remained outspoken about her beliefs on this matter through the duration of her life, and devoted an entire segment of her Christian talk show to an open discussion about AIDS with a diagnosed gay man. The scene, as depicted in the film, brought tears to my eyes in all its beauty. Despite knowing full well she will face backlash and judgment from the church, Tammy knew this was an important story that needed to be told. When mainstream media was spreading lies about a “gay cancer,” Tammy focused on understanding and love, challenging Christians to open their hearts. At one point, Tammy tells a prominent minister (a totally awful person played convincingly by frequent awful-person portrayer, Vincent D’Onofrio): “God didn’t make any junk—we’re all just people made out of the same old dirt.”
If we were deep in Oscar season, I would absolutely assume The Eyes of Tammy Faye would have a shot at winning several of the big awards. In particular, if neither Jessica Chastain nor the film’s incredible makeup effects end up being nominated, I will be very disappointed. I have not been this impressed by makeup effects in a long time—both Andrew Garfield and Chastain are convincingly aged up as the film zooms through the decades. Chastain in particular really impressed me in this way, with the makeup complimenting her transformative performance in the most wonderful fashion. The chemistry between Chastain and Garfield is well-balanced in its reflection of their real-life personas. It may be virtually impossible to watch this film and not be completely bowled over by Jessica Chastain. Her raw, rousing rendition of “Glory Hallelujah” in the final act made me want to give her a literal standing ovation. Director Michael Showalter juggles the tone with an assured hand. He makes sure that the funny moments have time to breathe, and he was the perfect choice to portray the tale’s campier sensibilities. It should come as no surprise that the writer of one of the best comedies ever made, Wet Hot American Summer, has such a firm grasp on the quirkiness of the Jim and Tammy Faye story, and yet I continue to be impressed by Showalter’s directorial skills.
As far as biopics go, The Eyes of Tammy Faye does nothing new to break the structural mold as it spans the years of this tumultuous relationship, except maybe have superior makeup to half of the ones I have seen. The power lies in the acting breadth on display, and the inherent campiness to the material that sets it apart. The strengths so vastly outweigh the weaknesses that I am willing to forgive the screenwriter clearly forgetting about the duo’s two children halfway in, up until the ending decides to remember them. After all, there is only one place one can hear Jessica Chastain spout this instantly-iconic line: “I’m not a drug addict! I’m only addicted to Diet Coke.” The approach to the source material and how close this all remains to reality may not be entirely clear, but personally for me, none of that mattered when I was having so much fun.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and praises glory to God when it debuts in theaters on Friday, September 17th.