Unfortunately, it is human nature to judge. Having never watched The PTL (Praise The Lord) Club, or any other evangelical television, like many people I was not aware of Tammy Faye Bakker’s ideology. And like most people, I only became aware of her because of the humiliating downfall she suffered alongside her then husband, Jim Bakker.
Based on the documentary of the same name by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is a moving, but cautionary tale of a deeply religious woman who truly loved all people. Played with a vengeance by the remarkable Jessica Chastain, who also co-produces, Tammy Faye was a formidable, supportive partner for Jim Bakker, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, in the best performance of his career.
Chastain had purchased the rights to the doc when her production company, Freckle Films, was newly formed. She studied everything she could about Tammy Faye, perfecting her speech and mannerisms. The results are astounding. David is more likely to write this than I, but Chastain certainly does look like a frontrunner for Best Actress at the Oscars.
To accomplish this mesmerizing transformation, Chastain and director Michael Showalter relied on makeup artist Linda Dowds and hairstylist
Stephanie Ingraham to capture Tammy Faye’s distinctive looks. Designer Mitchell Travers completed the overall effect by creating a
“bible” of costumes which reflected different time periods in Tammy Faye’s life. To write that all the artists achieved their goals would be an understatement.
Two other outstanding performances belong to Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s ultra-religious mother, Rachel. Because Tammy Faye was a result of her first marriage, she was a constant reminder for Rachel of the fact that she was divorced and not truly accepted into her church community. Nothing Tammy Faye did was right or good enough, no matter how hard she tried to gain her mother’s approval.
Jones only had to fix her expression and we immediately register her thoughts. Hers is a very subtle but pivotal role --- only breaking her steadfast rules once when Tammy Faye buys her a full-length fur coat. She manages to assuage her guilt by admitting she looks good in the coat --- and “it’s warm”.
Vincent D’Onofrio owns the other standout portrayal as the smarmy, back-stabbing Jerry Falwell. Every time Tammy Faye calls him Jerry instead of Reverend Falwell, D’Onofrio’s reaction is priceless. As misogynists go, Falwell was right up there at the top. But that didn’t stop Tammy Faye --- she was smarter and more determined than all the men around her, including the reprehensible Rev. Falwell.
As inspiring as all these extraordinary performances are, THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is not an exceptional movie. The screenplay by Abe Sylvia falters in several areas, most notably the storyline involving Tammy Faye’s relationship with Gary Paxton played by Mark Wystrach. What was supposedly a longer affair is relegated to an almost one afternoon fling. And after she gives birth to her daughter and son, we virtually never see them again.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE will not be an Oscar contender, but it’s the perfect vehicle for Chastain and Garfield to reaffirm their acting chops. And --- no pun intended --- it’s an eye-opening revelation into the true, loving spirit of a much-maligned, deeply spiritual woman.
Opinion: See It Now!
An astonishing performance by Jessica Chastain will shatter any preconceived notions you may have had about Tammy Faye Bakker. The two-time Oscar nominee studied Tammy Faye for seven years and it shows. As THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE moves forward, we realize we are witnessing what may be considered a career-best for Chastain. As she dives fully into her characterization, Chastain’s mannerisms and especially her voice inflections are so incredible we feel like we’re watching the real Tammy Faye.
Young Tammy Faye La Valley (Chandler Head) is mesmerized by a boisterous pastor at her family church in Minnesota. Years later while in college, she is again smitten, this time with a youthful preacher named Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). They marry shortly after and devote their lives to spreading the word of God, namely that “God loves you. He really, really does”.
The couple create The Praise the Lord Club on network TV. Jim preaches, Tammy Faye sings, and they raise a ton of money, asking frequently that viewers double their usual donation. The 70s and 80s were rife with TV evangelists, and one, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), puffed out his chest, bragging to Jim Bakker that he had over three million TV parishioners. Jim’s retort? He and wife Tammy had over 20 million!
Tammy Faye, with her long eyelashes, permanently lined lips and often outrageous makeup was the butt of many jokes, especially on television shows like SNL, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. But the reality is that she was a truly good person, opening her heart and her arms to people like Steve Pieters (Randy Havens) who was an openly gay AIDS victim whom she interviewed on her TV show. This at a time when Falwell and his ilk were practically calling for the abolition of homosexuals.
While Tammy Faye was the darling of the Bakker followers, Jim was essentially the greedy one, chastising his wife for not being “television ready” when they had to put on a show and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although they used charitable donations to satisfy their own material pursuits, it wasn’t until Jim was accused of using such funds to cover up an extra-marital affair that their troubles were exposed. Garfield’s performance is also stunning and his memorable scenes abound. In one brief segment he wrestles on the floor with fellow preacher Richard Fletcher, (Louis Cancelmi, you know him from “Billions”), suggestive of homosexual activity between the pair.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is an outstanding film and director Michael Showalter (THE BIG SICK) has amassed a stellar supporting cast. Tammy Faye’s mother Rachel is played by Cherry Jones. She worries that her daughter has taken the wrong path in her evangelism, but still supports Tammy Faye. It is her nuanced performance that is the voice of reason in this story.
Tammy Faye, pregnant for the second time and her marriage to Jim in tatters, is accused of having an affair with their music producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach). The film is not without humor as Tammy Faye’s water breaks in the middle of a passionate moment with Paxton.
I never paid much attention to the Bakkers and their TV shenanigans. If people wanted to be taken in by Jim and Tammy Faye’s appeals, that’s their business. So, if the subject matter of THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE seems dated or irrelevant --- writer Abe Sylvia based his screenplay on the documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato --- do not be too quick to dismiss this film as unnecessary fluff.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE provides deep insights into the lives of many people who thrived during this period. If for no other reason, see this movie for the powerful portrayal by Ms. Chastain.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!