For audiences of a certain age, the name Tammy Faye Bakker is a metonym for any number of women in the 1980s and 1990s who became famous for a particular brand of gilded excess and gobsmacking lack of self-awareness: Along with Imelda Marcos, Leona Helmsley and Ivana Trump, Bakker – who with her husband Jim became wealthy as hugely popular televangelists – came packaged as a ready-made cartoon.
Affecting the exaggerated power-suit shoulder pads of the era, her face spackled with layers of makeup and false eyelashes, Bakker became all the more of a tabloid piñata when the empire she built with Jim was destroyed amid his sexual and financial misdeeds.
It’s that Tammy Faye Bakker – the spangled laughingstock who embodied hypocrisy at its most flagrant – whom we meet right away in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Filmed in close-up, regarding herself in a mirror while an unseen makeup assistant tries to remove her eyeliner and lip-liner, she says it’s no use. They’re permanent. “This is who I am,” she chirps – cheerfully? Resignedly? A little of both.
Adapted from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” stars Jessica Chastain in a freewheeling and affectionate biopic in which we meet the young Tammy Faye as a girl in Minnesota trying desperately to win the love and approval of her icily withholding mother (Cherry Jones at her most tight-lipped imposing).
After meeting and falling in love with Jim (Andrew Garfield) at Bible college, the two embark on an itinerant life of spreading the Good News primarily through puppet shows for kids. While on the road, they get the attention of evangelical power brokers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and they create the Praise the Lord Satellite Network, which will eventually reach tens of millions of people in more than 50 countries with a form of “prosperity gospel” that entails near-constant entreaties for money.
The Bakkers’ rise and fall is a colorful, almost surreally metaphorical ride, and Tammy Faye, who died in 2007 after divorcing Jim and marrying her ex-husband’s business associate Roe Messner, is the perfect figure to recruit viewers’ rooting interest: As in Bailey and Barbato’s film, here she is portrayed as a flawed but deeply sympathetic figure trying to navigate the patriarchal strictures of a rapidly politicizing evangelical hierarchy.
The trick, when someone willingly makes a caricature of herself, is not to play the caricature: Although Chastain’s porcelain features are barely visible behind the prosthetics, pancake makeup and Minnesota-nice cadences, she imbues Tammy Faye with instantly recognizable ambitions and desires that are thwarted at nearly every turn. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” entails another challenge, which is to titrate the correct balance of critique and cynicism.
Writer-director Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “The Big Sick”) brings a history of cockeyed humanistic humor to the Bakkers, who in their youth are portrayed as a couple of giggly goofballs for Jesus. Although secretary Jessica Hahn’s accusation that Jim drugged and raped her was a major media story in the 1980s, Showalter never addresses the episode explicitly: His eyes are on Tammy Faye, whom he portrays as a frustrated performer looking for her key-light and constantly getting shut down, whether by Jim or Falwell, portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio with girthy, grumbling menace.
If anything, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” might have used a bit more cynicism: Although the film’s most moving sequences revisit how she reached out to AIDS patients and later became a gay icon, Showalter doesn’t grapple head on with the contradiction that she never stopped believing homosexuality is a sin. Nor did she accept her part in building and accepting largesse from a scam that bilked people out of millions of dollars.
Like 2017’s “I, Tonya” and the new “American Crime Story” series about Monica Lewinsky, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” offers a new and much-needed lens through which to view unjustly pilloried women of the past. But there’s a danger in swinging so far in our revisionist reappraisals that we strip women of their own complicated agency.
Still, thanks to Showalter’s pacey storytelling, lively attention to period detail and generosity toward his subjects, and thanks to the game central performances of Chastain and Garfield, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” captures a woman and her zeitgeist with an appealing mixture of campy joie de vivre and genuine thoughtfulness, producing an affecting portrait, not just of the limits of faith, but its depths and sincerity.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” gives viewers an absorbing, amusing and provocative chance to rethink yet another train wreck who turned out to be, of all things, human.
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