Jessica Chastain Becomes ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ With a Vivaciously Tragic Performance 

American evangelical culture has produced an array of figures ranging from infamous to colorfully tragic. Tammy Faye falls somewhere in the middle, with an infamy she seems to have tragically stumbled into. For some it’s hard what to make of her, which you can sense in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a film that overcomes its flaws by being so rowdily entertaining. Its singing, messianic heart, dressed to the nines, is Jessica Chastain. Chastain’s performance is the anchor here, because it almost does a better job than the movie itself in framing this personality. Her take on Tammy generates both empathy and puzzling awe at how her life turned out. She wants to fervently appeal to God, while using him as a checkbook.

Tammy first appears onscreen as a young girl growing up in rural Minnesota, the daughter of a Pentecostal church pianist, Rachel (Cherry Jones). Tammy is kept away from the church due to Rachel’s reputation as a divorced woman who remarried. But a defiant Tammy storms into Sunday service and proclaims she’s been touched by the holy spirit. In the ‘70s, Tammy (Chastain) attends a Bible college where she meets fellow student and aspiring preacher Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Friendly and passionate, Jim scoffs at the idea that a Christian life means humble living. It’s instant chemistry between him and Tammy. The two immediately get married. Figuring out how to make a living as holy rollers becomes difficult, until Jim gets an idea from Tammy’s talent for crafting funny puppets. They hit the road with a children’s act that catches the attention of the emerging culture of Christian television. The couple end up on CBN, a network run by Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and here their star begins to rise. Inner-squabbling with political operator Robertson sees them moving on to start their own enterprise, PTL (Praise the Lord), where their brand of charismatic, prosperity-friendly Christianity brings fame and wealth. With all that money comes deep corruption Tammy might be blind to, which sets them on a collision course with minister and powerful right-wing political figure Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). 

The saga of the Bakkers is the kind of surreal trip only possible in the United States, where we have our own, odd blend of politics, entertainment and religion. “This does a good job of educating viewers on who these people were,” Cherry Jones told Entertainment Voice, “They have this sort of iconic place in the America of the ‘70s and the ‘80s and the whole power movement and political movement of that time. Especially during Trump we’ve seen the shadow of it, Even though he’s now his own religion (laughs). He doesn’t need the Jerry Falwells of the world.” Director Michael Showalter and writers Abe Sylvia base this dramatization on an acclaimed 2000 documentary by Fenton Bailey also named “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” That was a journalistic work that is still more scandalously fascinating than this movie, with RuPaul narrating. For one thing, the real Tammy Faye, who passed away in 2007, is our guide through the story in the Bailey piece. 

But for those who haven’t seen the documentary, Showalter and Sylvia follow the main beats and provide a rare, cinematic take on a world rarely probed by popular cinema. The Bakkers were classic American go-getters, except their brand of corporate ambition took shape at a time when evangelical culture truly discovered the power of TV. This level of the story is the one that works best. With their welcoming, rousing style, they become an alternative to the rigid doctrines of peers like Robertson and Falwell, who formed part of the “Moral Majority” movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan, and has left a lasting influence on Republican politics. “The country was left divided back then,” Vincent D’Onofrio told Entertainment Voice. “People on the left, people on the right, we didn’t really call it that back then, they were just people. But I didn’t know much about Falwell, so I did a deep dive into him and examined who he was…one thing I didn’t know, but should have known, was how all those people like Pat Robertson and Jerry, and the Christian organizations they belonged to, was the beginning of them becoming political figures. It was always there beneath the surface but they brought it out into the sun.”

Where the story gets more complex and tricky is in how Tammy Faye generates both empathy and pity. Chastain perfectly finds her small, nasal voice, and she fully disappears under pounds of makeup that capture Faye’s obsession with every kind of touch-up imaginable. She’s a natural performer who is at ease when singing and swaying before an audience. You sense she would have done better in regular, secular entertainment, but like many talented religious people, it was an easier route to find fame via the church. As in the documentary, what makes Tammy controversial and quirky is her attempts at presenting a more liberal, “Jesus loves everyone” spirit on PTL. She promotes a penis pump in one segment (with Rachel in the audience) and interviews a gay man with HIV, without judgement and with genuine friendliness. This irks a fire and brimstone reverend like Falwell, who in typical misogynist fashion, wonders why Jim can’t control Tammy better. Showalter and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis expertly re-create some of the Bakkers’ most memorable TV moments down to every exact, flashy detail.

The Bakkers’ dream would notoriously fall apart when PTL racked up quite the multimillion dollar debts. Per this film, it was Jim who truly fell into a fever dream of debauched proportions. He would oversee the construction of a theme park, spend untold amounts on who knows what, and constantly go on the air with Tammy doing telethons asking for support. Jerry Falwell returns and becomes the main villain, by offering his help to the Bakkers while also casting judgement on them for their style. His trap is fully set when Jim is caught having an affair, and the politically-connected reverend directs what amounts to a clean-up operation. Here is where the movie also runs into some narrative confusion. What does Showalter, and Chastain who serves as producer, really think about the Bakkers? Were they hypocrites or unjustly shunned by a judgmental Protestant culture? There seems to be an effort at recasting Tammy as a kind of proto-feminist figure. She defies her overly conservative mother, feels Jim’s attention, including sexually, slipping away because of the demands of being a religious tycoon. As homophobia runs rampant in evangelical circles, she openly embraces the gay community. Yet when Tammy herself has an affair with the producer of her latest gospel album, it’s comic, more like a sad blunder than an act of independence. And of course, these are not your average cheating entrepreneurs. We first meet them as zealous, traveling promoters of the gospel. Once the fame and temptations grew, one wonders how they dealt with their conditioned fear of the Lord’s all-seeing eyes. The movie also shies away from some of the seedier details, like Jim’s affair with a Playboy model, an incident recounted with lurid flair in the 1990 TV movie “Fall from Grace,” starring none other than Kevin Spacey as Bakker.

Even if “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” shies away from probing deeper into what made Tammy and Jim tick, it’s still a fascinating tale. Chastain makes Tammy come alive with a likeably goofy mix of naivety and manic energy. It’s the perfect role to aim for the Oscar, because the whole point is that Tammy must dominate every scene, even if she’s just sipping on her beloved Diet Coke. Despite the opulence and a later addiction to medication, Chastain’s Tammy is genuinely full of passion for helping others. The makeup is her costume for going out into the world and bringing some love to it. She lives for the spotlight but going along with Jim for the ride shatters her. Andrew Garfield captures Bakker’s mannerisms exactly, but he also turns the televangelist into a convincing portrait of stressed ambition. He wants the money and fame, but can’t handle the pressures. Vincent D’Onofrio provides the perfect opposite to these two, channeling the frighteningly cunning zealot. Falwell may be a reverend, but he behaves like any cutthroat corporate raider. “Playing a part is like Stockholm Syndrome,” said D’Onofrio. “You fall in love with your character as your captor. While you’re playing them they can do no wrong, even when you step back and see the victims (laughs).”

Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker in a way connect through duel channels to where we are today. They represented the rise of prosperity gospel televangelism now personified by someone like Joel Osteen, while cavorting with figures like Falwell, whose brand of right-wing conservatism only morphed further into the kind of Christian nationalists that supports Donald Trump so passionately. Oddly enough, the end credit updates on the main players never mentions Bakker himself has been a staunch Trumper while peddling fake Covid-19 cures on his current TV show. This is also the rare awards-season film set in the world of American Pentecostals, Bible colleges and the odd battles that could mean a ruined career for not following the Ten Commandments. Above all that, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is more about a talented woman caught in a mix of faith and fame. Much of the downfall was self-made, but Chastain tries to find the person beneath the mascara and caricature. She makes watching this story unfold worth it. “I grew up in Tennessee. My grandparents were Seventh Day Adventists and my brother-in-law was Church of the Nazarene,” said Jones, when reflecting on the wider culture in the film. “I remember my mother telling me that when she was a little girl, she went to a revival with her grandmother and the minister looked down at my mother and noticed she wouldn’t come down to the altar to ‘be saved,’ and he goes, ‘Little girl, don’t you want to be saved?’ And she remembered looking up at him and saying, ‘I never knew I was lost!’”

The Eyes of Tammy Faye” releases Sept. 17 in theaters nationwide.