Directed by Michael Showalter | Written by Abe Sylvia, based on the documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato | 126 min | In Cinemas
My memories of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker come from TV in the late ’80s and early ’90s, where if you turned on the box late at night or on Sunday mornings the spiel of the televangelists were impossible to avoid. This particular couple’s fall from grace in the cauldron of media-stirred scandal was an opportunity to wallow in schadenfreude — few earned the wrath of the secular public like Jim and Tammy Faye, the tales of how their lavish lifestyle was supported with funds diverted from their church. While Tammy Faye seemed to exude, at best, a clownish cluelessness, she was also painted, like her husband, as a devious hustler who would turn on the waterworks at the drop of a hat to ply more funds from their massive TV audience.
The film tells the supposed backstory. It starts with Tammy Faye’s childhood in rural Minnesota. Her mother, Rachel Grover (the excellent Cherry Jones) was a divorcee and so wouldn’t let Tammy Faye join the family in church with her younger siblings produced of her second husband because it was a reminder of the sins of her previous, failed union. Turns out young Tam was quite the performer and wins over the community.
Her interest in being on stage — complete with puppetry, you know, for kids — serves her well years later when she hooks up with pastor Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), the two of them touring the country to share the word of God with the faithful. Before long they’d found a way onto television, and earned the attention of fellow televangelists Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). In the ’70s and ’80s they grew their audience, eventually using satellite TV to reach 20 million viewers a day. And while they used some of the funds given to the PTL Ministry to help the disadvantaged, they also feathered their nest.
The film is dizzying in its shifts from white people drama so painfully hokey it feels like it was written for a daytime soap — I briefly wondered what David Lynch would’ve done with this material — to broad, satiric swipes at the whole industry built by the gullible masses.
It contains multitudes: It’s a biopic that spans decades, a slick pasquinade on the phenomena of faith-based industries that bilk people through the comforting medium of television, a portrait of the place where relentless belief overlaps with wild self-deception, and a thick slice of American melodrama. It doesn’t do all of these things equally well — see soapy aside, above — but it does manage to humanize the people inside the story. That’s probably it’s most impressive achievement, and it’s Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye who deserves full credit for what she brings to bear. It’s a tour-de-force role — she manages to elicit sympathy under layers of latex and make-up, even convincing us she had an unashamedly horny streak behind all the preaching.
Strangely, Garfield, while being a genuinely likeable screen presence, never gets under Jim’s skin. Given Chastain is plausibly transformed , his appearance is a distraction. For the first act the filmmakers seem to be hoping a lot of pancake will make him look younger than his actual age, and it does his performance no favours. Neither does the writing, which never really comes to terms with the rumours of his affairs with other men. The couple also had two kids, who we barely see.
There’s no way I’ll ever buy that these people weren’t terrible, even if Tammy Faye did have sympathy for gay men living with AIDS, but the film suggests the possibility that she was just stupid, not evil, just naive, not calculating. Whatever the film’s sins, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is worth it just to see what Chastain does in its centre to make us consider that alternative narrative.