A new biopic hopes to rehabilitate the reputation of Tammy Faye Bakker, the scandal plagued televangelist who may be best remembered for her outlandish taste in make-up. But “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” now playing in theatres and starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, looks at the unusual rise and fall of a woman many wrote off years ago as a pop culture joke, through fresh eyes. “I won’t go forward looking in the rearview mirror of my life,” she says. “This is who I am.”
The eldest of eight children raised by stern mother Rachel (Cherry Jones), Tammy Faye (played as a youngster by Chandler Head) makes an impression at her mother’s Pentecostal Church when she speaks in tongues over a glass of sacramental wine.
Cut to 1960, Tammy Faye (now played by Chastain) is studying at the North Central Bible College in Minneapolis when she meets a charismatic student named Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). His approach to religion flipped the script from God fearing to expecting God to exalt those who made money in His name.
“God does not want us to be poor,” he says.
The pair, now man and wife, take their act on the road. Jim preaches, Tammy does puppet shows and both dream of starting their own church. After a meet cute with a producer for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, the couple get a TV gig and their biggest audience to date. Their folksy blend of religion, songs and hellfire catch on and within five years their Praise the Lord (PTL) Network hits the airwaves and the seeds of a scandal that will rock the televangelist community, and turn the Bakkers into tabloid fodder, are planted.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” features a bravado performance from Chastain, but like the make-up painted on the actress’s face, it is all surface. She is an entertaining combination of pluck, nervous giggle and giant eye lashes, but despite the occasional flash, the work is all personality with not enough going on behind the titular eyes. It’s big, bold and even admirable work, but never gets to the core of what made Tammy Faye run.
Chastain isn’t aided by a Wikipedia style script that hits the high and low points of the Tammy Faye’s life, career and marriage, but often forgets the connective tissue that brings these elements together. Despite the disjointed storytelling, the movie does do some interesting world building in its recreation of the PTL broadcasts and the presentation of the Bakkers’s elaborate lifestyle in all its lurid 1980s detail.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” entertains the ocular orbs but blinks when it comes to really digging deep into what was behind Tammy Faye’s eyes.