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TIFF 2021 Review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye – “Chastain’s sincerity is palpable”

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Image courtesy of TIFF

When one thinks of the late Tammy Faye Bakker now (she passed in 2007), she is often thought of with that overzealous eye makeup, big hair, thick fake lashes and drawn-on eyebrows.  That look, especially emphasized in her later years, was just a small part of Bakker’s persona, and unfortunately overshadowed the legacy of her talents and ideals.  Director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), creates a drama based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye that treats its subject matter with humanity and compassion.

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Jessica Chastain, plays Tammy Faye, in prosthetics to enhance her likeness (it took hours each day to apply the prosthetics and make-up that was used to widen Chastain’s face and cover her chin dimple in particular).  When we meet her as a child she has been ousted from church, banned because her mother (a fabulous Cherry Jones) divorced.  But her faith, really instituted by her mom, was strong, and she eventually ends up going to bible college, where she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield).  The couple fall in love and marry, breaking the rules at the school, so they head off on their own to spread the ‘good word’ as they travel across America.

After a chance encounter lands them on television, the couple surge to popularity, with Jim starting the “700 Club” (a show still on air to this day) before the pair eventually leave to start their own Praise the Lord (PTL) Network.  Jim and Tammy Faye were exceedingly successful, hosting their own variety type show, sharing the gospel and leading PTL to becoming the 4th largest television network.  But with this success also came an unhealthy ambition for Jim, and their organization was eventually fraught with scandal, leading to the couple’s downfall, and Jim’s prison conviction in 1989.

Showalter’s film is a relatively formulaic biopic, so it’s the performances that keep this movie interesting.  There are strong turns by Garfield, especially as Jim’s appetite for fame and progress consume him, and also Vincent D’Onofrio as the imposing and very conservative Jerry Falwell Sr.  But this is Tammy Faye’s story, and it’s told with a great deal of detail, from the Diet Coke that she continually drinks, to the laugh that Chastain commits to throughout the film.  It is difficult to act through that great deal of makeup, but Chastain throws herself into this portrayal with a somewhat wide-eyed innocence that is endearing and compelling.  This is a role that could easily have fallen to caricature, but Chastain’s sincerity is palpable, and tends to reign things in when they could have gone over-the-top.

“I just want to love people,” says Tammy Faye in the film, and indeed that is what she is shown to do.  Tammy Faye demonstrates her want to keep religion and politics separate.  Despite pressure from outside religious sources (including the aforementioned Falwell Sr.) she also wanted a place inclusive of the gay community and those afflicted with AIDS, something that was still largely misunderstood in the early 1980s.  Tammy Faye saw all of God’s creatures as precious, no matter who they were, and her faith in that belief is one of the highlights of this film.  For someone that was largely maligned in the media and late-night shows for her appearance, The Eyes of Tammy Faye may introduce you to a person you’ve never really known – a compassionate woman who just wanted love.

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