When a fictionalized retelling of well-known real-life events bears the exact same title as a previous documentary about those events, it’s a tipoff that the movie to come might be hard pressed to tell an original story. The Eyes of Tammy Faye was an acclaimed 2000 documentary about the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, married televangelists who created a Christian talk-show empire in the 1970s and ’80s and were brought down in the early ’90s by a string of financial and sexual scandals. The new feature film of the same name, scripted by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), stars Jessica Chastain as the terminally moist-eyed Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as her slippery, sanctimonious husband.
The documentary, made while Tammy Faye was still alive and with her sometimes embarrassingly eager participation, had a cheeky, campy affection for its subject, complete with voice-over narration by a pre–Drag Race RuPaul. The dramatized version, while lushly designed and winningly well-acted, might be used in a screenwriting class as a template for biopic “don’t”s. From the opening titles—an info-dump montage of vintage news clips and headlines—to the final credits, which appear over side-by-side photos of the real-life subjects and the actors playing them, The Eyes of Tammy Faye checks off every box.
There are flashbacks to traumatic events in the protagonist’s childhood and hectic montages of drink swilling and pill swallowing set to incongruously upbeat songs. There are more montages of the up-and-coming stars’ increasingly lavish and tacky real-estate acquisitions: a white-carpeted lakeside mansion, a Christian amusement park. It’s a wonder no one takes a saw to their couch in the midst of a self-destructive bender, Dewey Cox–style.
In a feature especially common to the recent biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye also makes heavy use of facial prosthetics, padded suits, and age makeup. In the era of Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice, when a combination of high-end makeup technology, digital effects, and many actors’ virtually unlimited willingness to transform themselves makes it possible for anyone to look like anyone else, how you feel about this trend may determine your reaction to a movie like The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Jessica Chastain, one of the most beautiful movie stars currently living (I sat a few rows away from her once at a post-screening Q&A, and her skin, so help me, was opalescent), would seem an odd choice to play Tammy Faye Bakker. Bakker was not an unattractive woman beneath the thick layers of makeup that were her trademark, but she presented herself in an unsettlingly Gorgon-like way, with mascara as thick as tarantula legs, her hair teased out in serpentine curls, and stiff, gaudy, hyperfeminine outfits with vast shoulder pads that dwarfed her small frame. The general impression Bakker gave was of someone striving so hard for conventional womanly glamour that she became a parody of it, like a drag queen. Her appearance was widely mocked as a part of her public shaming, a humiliation the movie documents. That’s a hard look, and a hard motivation, for someone as sensational-looking as the real-life Chastain to pull off. But she pours herself into the character with such exuberant energy that Tammy Faye’s insecurity about her appearance, and about virtually every other aspect of her life, is easy to believe.
As the self-deluded but irrepressible Tammy Faye, Chastain is touching and funny even when the situations she’s given to play offer little to sink her teeth into. Meeting her future husband and business partner in a class at the Christian college they both attend (and will soon drop out of to seek a life of spiritual entrepreneurship), she seduces him with a forbidden rock ’n’ roll song, an a cappella rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” (one of many times Chastain does her own singing, excellently). Tammy Faye has a chirpy speaking voice and a nervous laugh that tacks itself onto virtually every utterance. When she speaks through the homemade hand puppet the couple uses in their ministry to children, her voice climbs an octave and gets even more (as Jim cruelly but not inaccurately tells her decades later) “whiny and grating.” Tammy Faye’s staunch belief in herself, in God, and, until she’s faced with incontrovertible evidence of his wrongdoing, in her husband make her a difficult character to dismiss as nothing but an attention-hungry ditz. Still, The Eyes of Tammy Faye relies too much on Chastain’s performance to pull its narrative weight. The movie seems to love its main character without bothering to understand her.
As Jim Bakker, the outwardly flashy, inwardly conflicted minister running a media and real-estate empire based on graft, Andrew Garfield suffers more than his co-star from the script’s thinness of characterization. Because he is an exceptional actor, Garfield nonetheless communicates something of Bakker’s shambling charm in the early days of their ministry and his chilling greed and dishonesty once they achieved massive worldly success. But Jim’s history of cheating on his wife, including, according to some former employees, with younger male assistants, gets glossed over in a quick scene or two, as do the rape allegations brought against him by the model Jessica Hahn. (Bakker has repeatedly denied having any affairs with men and claimed that the encounter with Hahn was consensual.)
Without any insight into Jim’s inner life—when did he realize he liked men as well as women, and how did he square that forbidden desire with the stereotypically manly image he sought to project on TV?—the character remains less an enigma than a blank. As Jim ages, Garfield’s makeup is also less convincing than Chastain’s. Gray his hair and slap on latex wrinkles all you like, the actor who became a star by playing Peter Parker can’t stop looking boyish—but then neither could the real-life Jim Bakker, who preserved an unnaturally elfin aspect well into middle age.
A more ambitious film might have pulled the lens out from the couple’s hothouse domestic drama to connect Jim’s youthful preaching of the prosperity gospel—the idea that sufficiently fervent faith in God will reap material rewards for the believer—with the economic and cultural shifts that took place under Ronald Reagan. But when Jim briefly boasts to his wife that the 40th president is among his many powerful supporters, the scene seems to be more about his penchant for name-dropping than about the growing political clout of the evangelist movement in the 1980s.
One scene, re-created just as it looked in real life, is a welcome exception to the movie’s general disconnect from broader political issues. At the height of the Reagan administration’s inaction on AIDS, Tammy Faye invites an HIV-positive gay man, Steve Pieters (Randy Havens), on the air for a remote video interview, then breaks down in tears as they speak in detail about his struggles to be accepted and loved for who he is. Her compassion toward the man is of a piece with earlier glimpses of Tammy Faye standing up to the religious right’s entrenched tradition of homophobia, as expressed by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (played with sinister zeal by an underused Vincent D’Onofrio). But it would have added to this scene’s effect, and to the movie’s overall project of rehabilitating Tammy Faye’s image, if we had gotten to see her in the process of deciding to do this interview, convincing the subject to come on, or otherwise being the behind-the-scenes powerhouse she must have been to make TV moments like this happen. Instead, the movie seems to imply, Tammy Faye overcame all obstacles through the sheer force of her bubbly, pushy, cloying, yet oddly hypnotic personality.
If you can enjoy a well-acted soapy biopic for what it is and ignore the part of your brain whispering about what it could have been, The Eyes of Tammy Faye has pleasures to offer besides Chastain’s outsize performance. The production design by Laura Fox and the costumes by Mitchell Travers are luscious, eye-popping fun. At various times Tammy appears in everything from mod ’60s jumpers to disco-queen sequined dance wear to a satin lounging robe trimmed in peach-colored marabou. Chastain seems to revel in the sheer fun of transforming into someone so different from both her off-screen self and the resolute, self-sacrificing characters she usually takes on. Cherry Jones, as Tammy Faye’s devout, judgmental, but ultimately loving mother, delivers a quality that most of this over-the-top portrait of an over-the-top woman is short on: restraint.
Some late scenes, like one where a much older Tammy makes a cringeworthy reality-show pitch to an unimpressed producer, are near-reenactments of moments that appear in the 2000 documentary. I suppose this is fair territory—those moments caught on film were as much a part of the subject’s life as her childhood memories or her onstage daydreams—but it doesn’t make for the most involving drama to take an already-recorded scene from someone’s real life and painstakingly recreate it as fiction. The pitch for The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn’t appear to have gone much further than “Jessica Chastain IS Tammy Faye Bakker!” In this mostly disappointing movie’s best moments, she makes us believe she really is, but that’s still not quite enough.