In the 1980s and 90s, the United States experienced a televangelism phenomenon. Americans watched preachers deliver sermons, speak in tongues, and save people with the power of Christ from the comfort of their own homes. After these spectacles, viewers were asked for donations to what they were told were missionaries, but often turned out to be financially and sexually scandalous institutions. Televangelism still exists today, and can still be a monetarily successful venture, but nothing like it was in its hay-day.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye follows two such real life televangelist pioneers, Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), as they rise to televangelism royalty in the 70s and 80s and plummet to ridiculed obscurity after financial fraud and sex scandals. Hallelujah!
If nothing else, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is fun to watch. The story is a mixture of entertaining, sad, and scandalous, and it is populated by divisive, larger than life characters. Mostly though, the enjoyability of the film is down to Jessica Chastain’s performance. Chastain successfully borders caricature and reality, capturing the ridiculousness of televangelism as well as the big heart of Tammy Faye. It is this contradiction, of a well-intentioned and innocent person like Tammy Faye working in a corrupt and greedy institution, that makes Chastain’s performance feel whole and complex. Underneath her prosthetics Chastain is simply luminous, carrying the film with some help from her co-star Garfield. While Faye ended up becoming a laughingstock in her own time, the movie justly portrays her as the spirited, forward thinking, and optimistic person she was among the bigots of the American Church. Chastain’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress this year is well deserved.
The main problem with The Eyes of Tammy Faye is that it’s a biopic. Over the last few years, Hollywood has found an audience for biopics about popular celebrities and have been turning them out like there is no tomorrow, generating predictability and boredom in the genre. In every biopic the protagonist starts from humble beginnings, skyrockets to the top, is then ruined by fame and fortune to then either make a glorious comeback or fade into a sad existence (Tammy Faye suffers the latter). Many called out the industry for soulless, nostalgia-baited movies when Rami Malek won Best Actor at the Oscars for his role as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody – but the biopics keep coming. While of a higher grade, The Eyes of Tammy Faye falls into this biopic trap. If the film had leaned into more of a surrealist comedy reflective of Chastain’s acting it could have avoided this trope and said something interesting about Tammy Faye and organized religion in America. Although the filmmakers were unambiguous about their views on televangelism as corrupt and unethically linked to politics, they failed to make poignant observations or comments on the matter. Instead, they opted for a safe bet and told a compelling story in a monotonous, linear way. The film’s long run time of two hours (another trend these days), also added to the feeling that the movie was unfocused.
Despite its faults, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an enjoyable and fun ride through the ranks of religious day time TV. While the portrayal of Tammy Faye was well-done and compelling, a stronger opinion on televangelism’s exploitation of vulnerable people would have elevated the film to a more meaningful place.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently showing at Vue Omni.
Image courtesy of Peter K. Levy via Wikimedia Common