The Eyes of Tammy Faye
The problems with The Eyes of Tammy Faye are the perennial ones of the biopic; it’s either unable or unwilling to break the shackles of straight, literal-minded regurgitation and become a movie in its own right. Occasionally, one sees glimmers, particularly in the performances of Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain, at times so heightened they verge on camp, but screenwriter Abe Sylvia (working from the 2000 Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato doc) and director Michael Showalter lack the flair to push it into more interesting territory.
I’m not especially familiar with the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker story, except in context of the general scandals that have threatened the TV evangelist industry at various points. It’s evidently prime fodder for mining, replete as it is with eccentric characters, outrageous hypocrisy and terrible hair (Jim). And yet, The Eyes of Tammy Faye rarely rises to the challenge of reflecting how incredibly wackadoodle it all is.
To a degree, it’s a positive that Showalter isn’t intent on an outright assassination of Christian faith – mostly because it would be the most obvious and pedestrian move – but simultaneously, the only real point of view one senses in The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a guarded sympathy for an individual so remote, deluded or dim (or all of the above) that she incorporates her fantasies as genuine unto herself; from the moment infant Tammy Faye speaks in tongues in church, evidently a case of her putting it on rather than the real deal – unless the kid’s just a lousy actor – religion and publicity-seeking go hand in hand. Her devout, judgemental mother is clearly a confirmed sceptic, wearily asking her daughter what God’s been telling her this time. And yet, there seems a reluctance to suggest conscious, devious intent in Tammy’s behaviour; rather, what you see is what you get, hence the absurd makeup, failure to see into her husband’s psychology and peccadilloes, and her crossing bridges other, more fundamentalist Christians would not (allying herself with AIDS patients and the gay community).
Which is all very well, but since Tammy Faye, rather than the couple, is the focus, a slightly facile perspective is foisted on the movie as a whole. Chastain’s thus very good at playing someone essentially empty-headed (it was a passion project), but there’s an inevitable sense of caricature at times; her performance is actually more interesting during the movie’s early stages as young Tammy Faye, where the makeup allows for a striking contrast with Chastain’s usual demeanour. There. Tammy is not only warm and effusive in manner but much less severe, chiselled and out for an Oscar than the actress playing her (indeed, the irony that someone like Chastain, so performatively set on the serious business of getting a statuette for so many years, looks likely to earn it for the antithesis of her “star” persona is not lost). I did wonder, though, since this is one of those comprehensive makeup jobs that still make the actor look nothing like the real-life person they’re imitating, why Showalter and Chastain didn’t just cast Andrea Riseborough and dispense with the makeup completely.
Showalter and Sylvia don’t appear to have any ideas or insights with regard to the religious side of the equation, which again, makes this seem a rather literal biopic. Those delivering the message clearly aren’t up to snuff, but the film never decides to dig deeper; Tammy seems a relative (colourful) bystander next to her husband and other TV ministers. Is their professed belief entirely a sham, a tool to fleece believers (the simplest conclusion for the outsider to reach)? Or are they caught by hubris, prone to the same celebrity slide of those in the much-disdained secular sphere, considering themselves chosen and untouchable? Since they aren’t common Christians, the same rules don’t apply.
Jim Bakker has variously been labelled a sociopath and one with narcissistic personality disorder, and the makers would appear to veer towards the latter. The first time we see Jim is during a display of passionately showboating sincerity on a stage at Bible college; it instantly invites a sense of the manufactured, of insincerity. Along with Tammy’s aforementioned speaking in tongues, a desire for attention, of redirected worship and adulation, is a priority, and it’s this mutual cause that brings them together, rather than their faith (their lack of humility notably gets their tutor’s back up). Albeit, one might allow that the relationship between the two would at best be symbiotic, in that it would be impossible to prise religion and performance apart. Hence the rises and falls in the public eye, whereby even disgrace is to be displayed for the camera.
Garfield’s really good here, a squirmy, self-loathing shrimp of a man – the actual Bakker is only 5ft 4in; Garfield’s 6 inches taller – but one with a towering ego and need for adoration (any intimation that another, including Tammy, might eclipse him causes the mask to drop).
The case against the Bakkers, exposing their misdeeds, is organised by an imposing and characteristically impressive Vincent D’Onfrio as Rev Jerry Falwell (who would also, naturally, fall from grace). It serves to underline an absence in Showalter’s movie, though. Without representation of the audience and their psychology, there’s no understanding how Bakker could get back on the evangelism horse after a prison term. The instinct is to say, “Well, they’re all self-deluded fools of course, that’s why”. More charitably, the answer might be suggested in the elliptical view of Jim as presented here, which extends little further than him horsing around on a studio floor with another televangelist and admitting the misappropriation of funds (he insists the rape of Jessica Hahn was a stitch up and denies the “homosexual advances” alluded to by Falwell). It’s easy to call out evangelism, as it’s the faith equivalent of telesales, but the scornful greater public will habitually apply not wholly dissimilar attitudes to institutions and leaders they endorse.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s epilogue notes AIDS patient (and pastor) Steve Pieters is still alive and well, which says much about the nefarious background to the Fauci-promoted AIDS crisis (you can read Jon Rappaport’s blog for chapter and verse). On a similar subject, it seems Bakker, having veered into the doomsday prepper market (undeniably a sound business decision) was recently called up by the FDA for selling colloidal silver, which highlights the pervasive corruption of big pharma and its keepers. Bakker, unsurprisingly, was evidently duped himself, into swallowing the plandemic narrative.
It speaks volumes that all The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s awards attention is on Chastain and that makeup. Although, for what it’s worth, Garfield’s performance is much more engaging than the one he gave in Tick, Tick… Boom! And as these things go, The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s also a much more engrossing, better performed biopic than Being the Ricardos, which falls at the fence of off-putting casting and vain attempts to capture something of its subjects’ personality and appeal. If (when) Chastain takes the Oscar, it will at least be testament to an actress who lacks natural warmth successfully suggesting some in one of her characters.
First published by Now in Full Color on 25/03/22.