Review of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”: Jessica Chastain commits
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Towards the start of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, in a small Pentecostal church in Minnesota in 1952, a young Tammy Faye LaValley (Chandler Head) falls to the ground in a violent display of spiritual rapture, writhing and speaking in tongues and words. soiling dress. His strict mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), who plays “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the piano, is horrified by this spectacle, but the other devotees are delighted. Tammy Faye also seems delighted, as much by her own ingenuity as by the interventions of the Holy Spirit. We observe a born crowd, someone who intuitively grasps that the charismatic Christian tradition into which it was born demands – and rewards – a bit of staging.
By the time we see her next, Tammy Faye (now played by a surprisingly committed Jessica Chastain) is on her way to becoming the queen of ’70s and’ 80s American televangelism known as Tammy Faye Bakker. Together with her husband, Jim Bakker (a very skilled Andrew Garfield), she will forge a multi-million dollar Christian showbiz empire that will crumble with the revelation of Jim’s myriad of sex and financial scandals. But despite all the frauds of her husband and her tacit complicity, she retains a core of innocence and sincerity, concludes this uneven but easy to watch film. For Tammy Faye, he suggests, acting was a natural state of being and, in its own way, an expression of love: for God, herself and her audience, and for the cameras that bridge the gaps between three.
That was pretty much the conclusion of Randy Barbato and Michael Fenton’s barbed-but-loving documentary in 2000, also titled “Tammy Faye’s Eyes.” The identical titles have the unfortunate effect of making the new film more redundant, even though it lasts almost an hour longer. Like Barbato and Fenton, director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) tries to treat Tammy Faye Bakker as a figure worthy of both sympathy and satire, and even make one mode indistinguishable from the other. He wants to replicate Tammy Faye’s largely mocked aesthetic – from her iconic false eyelashes to the garish excess of the Bakkers house and shows (well approximated by production designer Laura Fox and costume designer Mitchell Travers) – and find a source in them. appreciation like as well as ridiculous.
Unfortunately, he is often blocked by a pedestrian script of Abe Sylvia (TV series “Dead to Me” and “Nurse Jackie”) which moves from one moment of life to another and relies heavily on the performance of Chastain to establish a sense of emotion and psychological continuity. It takes a while for this to happen, mainly because this Tammy Faye knows very early on who she is and what she is meant for. His stubborn sense of God-given purpose, although easy enough to admire, initially proves resistant to any developing sense of the inner life. Our first impression of her is made up of comedic folk ways and laughing prayers, delivered in a cheerful Betty Boop voice that Chastain gradually invests with a steel edge.
Tammy Faye’s overwhelming determination informs her decision to marry Jim, whose cheerful spirit and limitless ambition initially seem to be part of hers. The two go against the fundamentally conservative ethics of the Bible College where they first meet: Tammy Faye’s makeup triggers a reflective slutty shame while Jim’s sermons on wealth, his insistence on fact that material riches could be a sign of God’s favor, mark him as one of the earliest proponents of the prosperity gospel. These scenes – confirmed by later glimpses of the Bakkers’ lavish, carpeted excavations – couldn’t help but remember the tsk-tsk-ing grave on prosperity theology I heard at the Baptist Church. in which I grew up. This church, in this case, was located not far from the garish Costa Mesa headquarters of the Trinity Broadcasting Network – a station the Bakkers helped build in the early 1970s before being rejected by its founders, Paul and Jan Crouch. .
That particular episode is missing from the film, as are many behind-the-scenes power struggles that could have given a juicier, more nuanced feel to the Bakkers’ zigzag journey to the top of their PTL (Praise the Lord) television network. Yet the tracks we see, interspersed with real and fictional TV footage from the era, are often prime. Among the Bakkers supporters turned rivals is Pat Robertson (a spot on Gabriel Olds), whose longtime talk show “The 700 Club” provides a first home for Jim’s preaching and singing and puppetry. Tammy Faye. And then there’s the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio, quite a gruff bossy threat), who recognizes a formidable foe in Tammy Faye when they politely clash over what Falwell calls the “gay cancer” of the ‘America.
The film harnesses the easy but effective goodwill of Tammy Faye’s provocative support for the LGBTQ community (“America is for them too”) and her belief that politics and religion should not mix, which makes she a controversial and progressive figure by the standards and expectations of televangelists. his future reconquest as a gay icon. Showalter gently picks up on his memorable 1985 TV interview with gay minister and AIDS activist Steve Pieters (Randy Havens), and Tammy Faye’s ally is both touching and revealing: the mascara-streaked tears running down her face can looking like a she indulges her stories with such conviction that it becomes impossible to tell where the heart-wrenching artifice ends and where true empathy begins.
The blurring of those lines is key to the performance of Chastain, who has her fair share of obvious accouters – she seems to change wigs and accumulate layers of makeup with all the other scenes – but also cleverly subverts them. An actor stacking on prosthetics is nothing new, but the effect here is markedly different from most other showy, prestige-seeking biopic transformations. Because these outer layers were, for Tammy Faye Bakker, a crucial part of her most authentic self, Chastain also turns them into a conduit for deeper intimacy with the character. She is not lost under all this pancake; it is strangely found. (She also does a good job singing Tammy Faye’s signature tunes.)
Jim, on the other hand, is all smiles, mixing duplicity, his eyes still riveted on the camera and his ears still pricked up to the sound of phone calls from PTL donors. Sporting a huckster smile and hair almost as big as Chastain’s and drawing the words “God adoooooore tu! ”a little longer with each chorus, Garfield shows how so many people were able to fall in love with Jim’s kind swagger, to the point of funding a huge Christian-themed water park, a Disneyland for devotees. But Garfield betrays him. also a glimmer of terror which the film only timidly evokes the roots as the marriage of the Bakkers begins to unravel: implode too quickly as years of financial malfeasance tumble in broad daylight.
There is much, much more to the story, some of which is covered by the documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” but which the fictional narrative is glossed over. Sam Jaeger briefly appears as the builder of the Roe Messner mega-church, but his subsequent marriage to Tammy Faye (and subsequent drama) is uncovered. The same goes for any deeper analysis of the legacy left by the Jim Bakkers and Jerry Falwells of the world, the lasting damage they have caused by tying mainstream Christianity so tightly together with the Republican right. (Tammy Faye Bakker died of cancer in 2007, years before after his incarceration, Jim Bakker reinvented himself as Donald Trump’s accomplice.)
But maybe these omissions are appropriate. The more alienated she is from the Christian media that spawned her, the more poignant Tammy Faye becomes. We follow her through her failed attempts at Hollywood reinvention, undertaken with her usual optimism, but also a current of melancholy and perhaps a slow realization of her own illusion. “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” she sings at the end of the film, her voice breaking as she revisits the hymn of this early childhood conversion. It’s like the scales have finally fallen from her eyes, even though the eyelashes never would.
“Tammy Faye’s eyes”
Rated: PG-13, for sexual content and drug abuse
Duration of operation: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: Starts September 17 in general version