Jessica Chastain Shines in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye'

A couple stands together in the snow
[L-R] Jessica Chastain as TAMMY, Andrew Garfield as JIM in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
takes a deep dive into the life of Tammy Faye Bakker, later in life known as Tammy Faye Messner. Based on a documentary of the same name co-directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the biopic seeks to further explore the life and witness of Tammy Faye as a separate entity from her husband. Whereas the documentary leaned into the scandals and tabloid-worthy gossip that followed the couple, this fictional treatment wants to present the real person behind the limelight -- her faith, generous heart, and eternal belief that God's love can and should change hearts. The film is directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and written by Abe Sylvia, and it's guaranteed to entertain and captivate even the most cynical viewer.

Let's give credit where it's due -- Jessica Chastain is the driving passion behind the film. She is listed as the lead actress and a producer, but she approached Bailey and Barbato about repurposing their script and researched Tammy Faye for seven years. In addition, many of the lead cast members were chosen by Chastain herself. All of this care pays off in Chastain's performance. She transforms herself into Tammy Faye in affect, personality, and appearance (with help from the talented makeup and costume department). Chastain has always been a fine actress, with knockout roles in Zero Dark Thirty, The Tree of Life, and Molly's Game as examples. But the work she put towards this role put her on par with Daniel Day Lewis and the way he disappears into his roles. Many biopics fail because the star tries to shine. Chastain cedes her body to Tammy Faye's spirit, and the results are astounding.

A woman with blonde hair sits up in bed in a pink dressing gown
Jessica Chastain as TAMMY in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

The narrative dwells briefly on Tammy Faye's childhood but spends most of its time during four decades of her adult life from the 1960s to the 1990s. She meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at North Central Bible College, and the pair feel drawn to one another due to their mutual knowledge of the Word of God and their shared desire to serve Him in ministry. The story plays like a rags to riches tale, depicting their rise to fame, leading to the inevitable abuse of power and scandal that come from unchecked pride in self. Rehashing the history in a movie review would take away the fun, but like any story about celebrity culture, what goes up must come down. Being someone quite unfamiliar with the details of the Bakker story, I was riveted by the tale. But what I found more interesting is how sincere Tammy Faye remained throughout. Sure, she had her addictions and moments of weakness, but if the movie spins a true tale, Tammy Faye had a genuine heart for people. Unlike her husband, she cared less about the dollar signs and more about the impact she could make on the world.

The evangelical community at large seems especially primed for this film at a time when tales of corruption within the church coming to light are an almost daily occurrence. Podcasts like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and books like Kristin Du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne have already prepared selected audiences to consider the systemic issues tainting the white evangelical industrial complex. The pathway has been cleared for viewers to see Tammy Faye as a vigilante trying to work against the system, while also complicitly enjoying the fruits of it. Tammy's talents get overlooked simply because she is a woman. In one of the most telling scenes, Tammy makes a scene by daring to join the head table where the important menfolk are worshipping at the altar of Jerry Falwell (played with panache by Vincent D'Onofrio). The men appear to accept Tammy's interruption, all while communicating the exact opposite with their eyes and body language. Tammy ignores their contempt and dares to challenge Falwell.

A woman sings while a man look in with a cat in his lap
[L-R] Jessica Chastain as TAMMY, Andrew Garfield as JIM in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

As noted previously, Chastain's performance in the role of Tammy Faye cannot be praised enough. She takes on Tammy's mannerisms, her dialect, and even her signature girlish laugh. That's not to say other actors don't do outstanding work, as well. Chastain just outshines them all. Ignoring Chastain for the moment, Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker gives a nuanced performance and manages to capture Jim's overzealous and driven nature. When he first meets Tammy Faye, he authentically captures the soul of a man desperately in need of affirmation. Tammy's kindness and admiration give him confidence and help him heal from the shame of an incident he discloses to her about his past. Later on, his pride and success blind him to how she props him up and he begins to disregard her as a valued partner. Garfield brings all of these complex internal ideas into his role. Cherry Jones as Rachel Grover, Tammy Faye's mother, serves as a nice antithesis to her daughter's extravagance and zeal for life. Rachel, a no-nonsense and practical woman, often serves as a channel for subtle humor: "I don't know what icing cupcakes has to do with telling people about Jesus." Their mother-daughter interactions show an evolving tolerance for one another only reserved for family members. Lastly, no statements about the performances would be complete without mentioning how much fun I had seeing Vincent D'Onofrio as Jerry Falwell. Being a fangirl of Robert "Bobby" Goren from Law and Order:CI, I regard D'Onofrio as a terribly underutilized actor. He knocks every role he has out of the park.

The camera work and editing team perform miracles in visual storytelling, especially in regards to the couple's marriage. In the early years of their courtship, marriage, and ministry, the camera captures them together in frame. They stand close and appear as a unit. Later, as their purposes become divided, the camera takes wide angles and shows them standing across from one another or apart, facing off as enemies do. In other places, Tammy Faye is shot in close ups, sometimes just showing her eyes or face, while the camera shows Jim in a medium or larger shot. The intimacy is shattered and Tammy feels alone. The only time the couple stands together is when they are on camera together on the PTL network. Michael Gioulakis, director of photography, reconstructs the glitz and glamour of the production sets on the show.

A woman with caked on makeup looks in mirror
Jessica Chastain as TAMMY in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE
Speaking of glitz and glamour, the hair, makeup, and prosthetics team, lead by Linda Dowds (Crimson Peak) and costume design by Mitchell Travers (Hustlers) capture the era and Tammy's evolving look with painstaking precision. Look for recognition come awards season for the research and execution.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye has all of the qualities of the best biopics, informing and entertaining through a story format. The movie never tries to turn its subject into a hero, but she does come across as sympathetic and intriguing. Without relying on unnecessary exposition, Tammy's heart for the outcast is established during the scenes of her childhood. Tammy understands inherently how it feels to be left out, both as a child and as a woman trying to earn a seat at the table. The film doesn't excuse Tammy's downfalls or present her as anything but a strong woman with a good heart who sought to do good, and maybe earn some praise along the way. In one of my favorite moments, she walks up to three young men who are making rude comments about her makeup. She says, "You can make fun of me, but you have to shake my hand first." That's gumption.

Release info: In theaters September 17, 2021

Final score: 4 out of 5


I loved Jessica Chastain’s performance as Lucille Sharpe in Crimson Peak! I haven’t heard of Tamme Faye before, and I’ll certainly have to check out this biopic.
Lindsey said…
Oh yeah she was great in Crimson Peak. You should ask your parents what they remember about the Bakkers. They probably have some stories. I just heard rumors.