With Jessica Chastain’s (IT CHAPTER TWO; THE MARTIAN; A MOST VIOLENT YEAR) SAG win the other day for her performance as TV’s most parodied televangelist, I thought I should check out the film that bears her character’s trademark. As one would expect with a story about Tammy Faye Bakker, plenty of mascara was involved.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE follows the gay icon’s life from the time she was a young girl in International Falls, Minnesota, where her mother, Rachel Grover (Cherry Jones, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK; TV’s 24), was the piano player at the local Pentecostal church to her and her husband’s fall from grace 30-odd years later. Along the way, audiences see Tammy Faye in Bible college where she meets classmate Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, TICK… TICK… BOOM!; BREATHE; SILENCE; HACKSAW RIDGE), who would soon become both her husband and business partner. Jim, realising the power of cable and satellite television to reach a much wider audience than a bunch of parish churches ever could, and Tammy Faye, understanding that the best way to fleece the sheep is through grabbing the attention of their innocent lambs, the pair immediately struck a chord with America’s Bible thumpers with Jim’s impassioned sermons and Tammy Faye’s homespun relatability. It took only a few years for their PTL Club to draw in 20 million viewers from around the world each day. By the time the early 1980s came around, they were the world’s most famous televangelists and Tammy Faye’s heavy black mascara and near-to-tears delivery became fodder for such comedians as Catherine O’Hara and Jan Hooks. Dana Carvey got in on the act too, with his iconic character, Church Lady. Kathy Kinney’s Mimi Bobeck character on THE DREW CAREY SHOW was probably also based on Tammy Faye, and in a serendipitous combination of opportunity and necessity, Tammy Faye even played Bobeck‘s mother on two episodes.
Life for the Bakkers away from the cameras though was far from idyllic. For years, rumours were swirling about improprieties with the mission’s finances as well as Jim’s affairs with people of both genders. When Jim confronted Tammy Faye about her own questionable relationship with record producer Gary Paxton (Keanu Reeves lookalike Mark Wystrach), he made her go on their show and confess her bad judgment to the world. Though she didn’t admit to doing anything inappropriate, she did pretty much parrot the title of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 chart topper, “Stand By Your Man”. By the end of the ’80s, however, their misdeeds finally caught up with them and Jim was charged with and found guilty on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy for which he was sent to prison. Though Tammy Faye tried to rebuild her career, she never saw the same kind of success that she previously had.
I surprised myself by actually liking this film more than I expected I would. Chastain truly gives her performance her full effort, right down to singing with an Upper Midwestern twang, but THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is really nothing more than a glorified made-for-TV movie. Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, director Michael Showalter (THE BIG SICK) unfortunately doesn’t offer audiences anything that they haven’t already read before in the National Inquirer or on Wikipedia. The only revelations to be found here are the Jesus kind.
With Chastain’s SAG win, it no doubt makes her a strong contender to take home the Best Actress Oscar too. Will she do it? We’ll have to wait until March 28th to find out!
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is currently in cinemas in many countries around the world and on HBO Max where available. Here in Hong Kong where our cinemas have been closed since January and aren’t scheduled to reopen until April 20th at the earliest, the film is available on Disney+.
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