THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE– 3 STARS
WebMD will tell you that selective listening involves “consciously or unconsciously choosing to listen to what is relevant to you and ignore what isn’t.” Marinate on that for a moment, especially the second part, and then apply that notion to the talking heads and one-track minds of the spiritually devout you see leading cameras and congregations of people with loose wallets and even looser gullibility. That’s the misplaced morality at the center of Michael Showalters’ The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
LESSON #1: THE INCONSISTENCY OF SELECTIVITY— Let’s double down. More than only in the ears, add selective blindness to the pious personalities of Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye, portrayed by the superb Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain. They, as well as the movie, miss blatant flaws in front of them. For the tele-evangelists themselves, their riches-fueled tunnel vision creates an inconsistent message and eventual downfall. For the movie, being torn in tone leads to selective shock, selective shame, selective blame, and selective quality.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens on precisely those peeping sensory globes covered in layers of drawn-on products. In a tight shot that slowly zooms out, we already begin to wonder what they see and what they don’t. In this case, and in many moments that will follow, Tammy Faye Bakker is looking at herself and admiring her trademark look. In this opening showing the woman later in life, others nearby remark and wonder why she has chosen that particular beauty regiment which puts her on the oddly confident defensive to say, “This is who I am.”
With that, you watch and already wonder how she could not see the lost causes or the extreme personal flaws. Later, she’ll say “I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not,” plainly missing the obvious mistakes enveloping her, her marriage, and her supposed missions. By the time she reaches a place of power as a pill-popping tornado blunt enough to say “Be honest with me,” nothing said back to her in any equal bluntness will register. That’s what eventually brings laughs from a line like “Can we talk about Satan later” as if she and others are passing dishes at a family-style dinner and forgetting the hot potato hand grenades of monstrous consequences.
That introduction was only the beginning of the constant varnish present in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The movie, in great detail, is, like its title character, quite done up. The production design and costume creations of Laura Fox (Troop Zero) and Mitchell Travers (Hustlers) perfectly recreate the lavish excesses of the people and their period. The gaudier the better, and it sure does dazzle.
LESSON #2: PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A PIG— Throughout, however, it feels like the old dig of “putting lipstick on a pig” which Wikipedia describes as “making superficial or cosmetic changes to a product in a futile effort to disguise its fundamental failings.” That begs the next question of identifying those fundamental failings. Look how silly the Bakkers made themselves to be. Look at what mattered to them more than love. Look how fake it all ended up. Look what they failed to stand for. Look at what expense all those bad looks cost, professionally, financially, and personally. History has convicted what those failings were as the movie spins its own drama to do itself up with its own cinematic makeup.
With that lipstick in mind, Jim and Tammy Faye are presenting an image in an entertainment arena and cultural landscape where image is everything, even if it’s artificially produced. Beginning as lovestruck schoolmates who take their husband-and-wife preaching and puppetry act on the road, the Bakkers soon latch onto Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) Christian Broadcasting Network and explode into television stars. When they outshine the CBN and gain national favor higher than conservative head honcho Jerry Falwell (a sly Vincent D’Onofrio), Jim and Tammy Faye started their own PTL Satellite Network reaching audiences that dwarf their former superiors and idols.
LESSON #3: MONEY TENDS TO RUIN EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE— With popularity comes money. With money comes ambition. Money and ambition bring about frivolity and greed. Frivolity breeds that selectivity mentioned before and, when that consumes formerly righteous morals, mistakes become larger and happen more often. That’s the arc that brought down the Bakkers.
Collecting donations for bigger and better plans that never materialized became the aim of the religious power couple. Armored with the mindset of “God doesn’t want us to be poor,” they created a justification of their “gifts from God.” When Tammy’s mother Rachel, played by a stern Cherry Jones, asserts that “serving God shouldn’t be a money-making opportunity,” the warning is ignored and we’re back to selective hearing and selective blindness.
It’s only later when Jim is in prison that the line of realization and rooted conclusion drops of “Were we preaching that God doesn’t love you if you’re poor?” Such a blameless conscience to measure God’s love by phone rings and receipts equals the high summit of entitlement which The Eyes of Tammy Faye attempts to explore with fluctuating results. Based on Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name, the feature adaptation spins its own wheel of fortune to pick-and-choose a handful of those sordid scandals.
Make no mistake. Jessica Chastain exists in The Eyes of Tammy Faye up in a stratosphere higher than the satellites that used to simulcast her character’s messages and performances. She teems with dedicated intensity across the external shell she embodied and internal core she stoked. Through a doughy cheek prosthetic foundation sculpted by Brian Wade (Army of the Dead), the exceptional hair and makeup work by Linda Dowds and Stephanie Ingram (their 10th and 8th collaborations with Chastain respectively) create a glossy shroud to the pain, energy, and turmoil underneath. Beyond the looks, that’s when Jessica bends that twang and unleashes that matching cackle to complete the transfiguration illusion.
When you look across from Chastain and see Andrew Garfield smiling and trying, you see a foil against how good she really is. Garfield, ringing up another shitty accent in a career quickly filling with them, cannot compete with her. There’s one damn good scene of the two feeding off each other where we see Garfield’s full potential. Jim and Tammy Faye share a raging blowup of honesty and judgment that releases what has been lingering underneath and unsaid between them all throughout the movie. At that turning point, Garfield finally reaches Chastain’s level and you realize how much the film could have used more of that very melodramatic magma from him.
In the end, it’s the indecision that saddles the impressive with the indifferent. Director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and screenwriter Abe Sylvia seemingly cannot decide on a cementable tone. The scope of The Eyes of Tammy Faye veers too much between a scathing parody and an eye-opening chronicle. Is this movie reaching for grace and sympathy to highlight Tammy Faye as a semi-innocent victim with some redeemable qualities (like her early championing of LGBTQ+ rights) or is it clawing at shame prodded by laughable moments of well-deserved embarrassment and cringe? Once again, that wavering selectivity eats away at a strong film experience.
LESSON #4: WHERE ARE THE DUPED NOW?— That lens gets wider when you look at the topicality of this movie in the present day of its 2021 awards season release. Over thirty years ago, the Bakkers used to say they were part of fighting for our nation’s soul. Were they doing that or collecting the gullible? Where are those old followers and donors now? As a documentary, there is observational value in those raised questions being matched with the facts and details of their crimes. As a dramatized movie, a committed purpose is the challenge through the storytelling subterfuge to keep an audience invested.
If your hypothetical answer to the “where are they now” involves wearing a MAGA hat and being latched onto the next smiling megachurch preacher or the still-kicking Jim Bakker, you’re probably not alone or far off. If The Eyes of Tammy Faye means to hold a mirror up to those dedicated churchgoers, one has to wonder if this film’s take on the Bakkers’ tabloid collapse will even resonate with those that probably need to hear it the most. That’s a difficult journey to fully celebrate, because the opposite people have seen and heard these kinds of rung bells enough. Lingering on after the public fall, Chastain’s Tammy Faye gives her “The sun will shine again” sendoff cry of unbroken spirit, but does such absolution deserve to rise for both her and her crowd?