Jeff’s Must Watch Movie of the Week - The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Image for this story

Oscar Wilde once said, "Moderation is a fatal thing.  Nothing succeeds like excess."  While chances are very good that Wilde wasn't talking about notorious televangelist/singer/sequin-lover Tammy Faye Bakker, the sentiment definitely applies to the over-the-top subject of this week's Must Watch Movie,  THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE.  Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name (narrated by Ru Paul!), this fictionalized account of the rise and fall of self-styled Christian TV personalities Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who, through their mega-popular PTL Club and extravagant "lifestyle of the rich and infamous," did more than anyone else to mold televangelism into a big-money, game-changing, culture-shaking, credit-card-maxing industry/cult/diversion.   

The Bakkers' spectacular late-1980s crash-and-burn, brought about by highly-publicized sex and finance scandals, was spun by the media into a cautionary tale of greed, corruption and the dangers of too much mascara.  And of course, it was the undeniably-unusual Tammy Faye who unjustly bore the vicious brunt of the press and the late night comedy shows, an all-too-easy target thanks to her heavy clown make-up, kitschy clothes and full-throated pop/gospel singing (not to mention her propensity for puppets!).  From the vantage point of 2021, Tammy Faye's downfall at the hands of her snake-of-a-husband, and the gleeful way the world mocked her tears, seems more than a little sexist.

While it would be easy to portray Tammy Faye as a campy caricature (since she herself always verged on self-parody), THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE makes the shrewd decision to play it all (well, mostly all) straight, despite the fact that it's directed by comedian/filmmaker Michael Showalter, whom one could reasonably expect to treat the story like kooky kitsch.   The film takes the stance that Tammy Faye (and to a lesser extent, her husband Jim), more than three decades after their fall from grace, don't need to be mocked - they need to be understood.

While Andrew Garfield is convincing as the charisma-free Jim Bakker (exactly how DID this blank slate of a person become such a beloved TV personality?), and Vincent D'Onofrio is frighteningly well-cast as the creepy Godfather of Televangelists, Jerry Falwell, this is Tammy Faye's story, and most of all, the film is a showcase for the incredible performance of Jessica Chastain, whose journey into the "uncanny valley" as Tammy Faye is so deeply spot-on that it becomes almost impossible to separate her from the real-life Tammy Faye, especially when the film plunges into the ultra-tacky '80s and the emotions, along with the shoulder pads, are stretched to epic proportions. And the Oscar-nominated actress even manages to bring out Tammy Faye's humanity and innate goodness, especially as she becomes an ally for the LGBTQ community and an outspoken advocate for AIDS awareness, which was unheard of behavior for a Christian televangelist in the Reagan '80s.  It's a performance both astonishing and unsettling.  Sort of like Tammy Faye herself.

As a film, THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is no great shakes. It's too conventional and predictably structured to truly transcend the tawdry scandal of its source material (unlike, say, the 2017 film, I, TONYA).  It often has the feel of a very good TV-movie - easy to watch, but not roof-shaking.  An edgier director could have taken this to a darker and more revealing place (paging Todd Solondz!).  But see it for the amazing Jessica Chastain, and while you may not walk away loving Tammy Faye, you may be surprised to realize she was a real person and not just a Maybelline maniac.