THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (TIFF 2021) – Review by Pam Grady

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Jessica Chastain might be hoping that the sheer amount of makeup on her face will be good enough at awards time to garner her some nominations. In becoming The Eyes of Tammy Faye‘s Tammy Faye Bakker, there is so much coverage on the actor’s visage (really, so much that it is practically spackle) – which makes her resemble a John Wayne Gacy clown painting and which she blames for possibly forever altering her skin – that it is practically a character unto itself and certainly more animated than anything else in this needless dramatic regurgitation of the 2000 documentary of the same name. Whether all that paint will be good enough for an Oscar nod in a movie that misfires remains to be seen.

Written by Abe Sylvia (a staff writer on Nurse Jackie) and directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), The Eyes of Tammy Faye repeats the original sin of the documentary in soft-pedaling Tammy Faye’s involvement in her husband Jim’s (Andrew Garfield) fleecing of their flock first as TV preachers on The 700 Club, under the aegis of Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and later on The PTL Club, portraying her greed as almost guileless and portraying her as almost a victim to the men around her. Yet, she is also given a scene where she insists on taking her seat at the men’s-only table of heavyweights like Robertson and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onfrio, channeling his inner-Brian Dennehy and easily the high point of the movie), and she is lockstep with Jim on their grifting rise. So, which is it, innocent naïf or Lady Macbeth of the Bible Belt?

For that matter, the film softens Jim Bakker, too, portraying him as a cheerful con who hit on the idea of prosperity gospel early – he is introduced making a case for raking in the big bucks as a student in Bible college, to the delight of classmate Tammy Faye – and simply ran with that notion. That the Bakkers’ greed was no match for their outsized ambitions – their big plans for housing schemes, theme parks, and the like – so that they were constantly in debt and in need of bigger and bigger pledges from their Christian target audience does not absolve them of their crimes. Nor does Tammy Faye’s love and acceptance of the LGBT community at the height of the AIDS crisis. That was the one aspect of her life in which she was truly great and what she did was extraordinary for the era. But how many lives did the Bakkers ruin (including LGBT lives) in conning their flock out of their cash to keep the Bakkers in the lavish lifestyle to which they had become accustomed?

The most frustrating aspect of The Eyes of Tammy Faye is that it strands Chastain, Garfield, and a whole cast of top-flight actors in what is essentially a live-action cartoon. It skims the surface of the Bakkers’ lives and their criminal enterprise and never connects the dots forward to our own era when prosperity cons have multiplied and where Jim Bakker, left unabashed by his time in prison, has remade himself as an end-of-times preacher, recently was made to pay restitution for selling a bogus (and dangerous) COVID “cure,” and just this month cohosted a telethon with pillow salesman/election denier Mike Lindell. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a sad movie, indeed, when the only depth to it is the layer of greasepaint on its leading lady’s face.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.