Jessica Chastain is about to re-ignite the Best Actress Oscar race. The shaky vehicle “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” currently in cinemas, enables her to flaunt her thing as Tammy Faye Bakker, the televangelist with eyelashes for days and a bright outlook that no gloomy clouds could darken.
The film, directed by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”), follows the typical biographical pattern of rising, collapse, and rise again. Biopics, on the other hand, will always hook you if there’s a virtuoso at the center of these purportedly genuine events. If Chastain has anything to say about it, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, will get you good.
And, as both a producer and a star in the picture, Chastain has a lot to say. Tammy Faye’s tour de force tries to rehabilitate her image as a cultural parody in clown makeup. Chastain portrays her as a female warrior fighting against the male-dominated Christian right’s political politics and rejection of alternative lifestyles.
The piece’s devil is Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), the young preacher she met, married, and created an empire with on the top-rated evangelical TV shows “The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club” and “The 700 Club” in the 1970s and 1980s.
When Tammy Faye brought Jim home as her husband, it was Tammy Faye’s strict mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), who detected something odd about him. Rachel isn’t convinced by Jim’s desire to serve God with all the conveniences that a donation plate may give.
And Jim certainly won over the crowds with Tammy Faye’s larger-than-life attitude and passionate hymn singing. Tammy Faye LaValley (Chandler Head) knew how to put on a show even as a youngster in the 1950s, writing on the church floor and speaking in tongues. Rachel was outraged, but the parishioners adored Tammy Faye, and the film depicts how much she craved their adoration.
Tammy Faye’s knowledge of her husband’s wandering eye toward men and his shady activities with church funds is frustratingly unclear in the film. When Jim was found guilty of fraud in a 1989 trial, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), the Southern Baptist pastor who co-founded the Moral Majority a decade before, also expelled Tammy Faye.
Tammy Faye, on the other hand, should never be underestimated. Certainly not in the film. And you won’t be able to take your gaze away from Chastain, whether she’s lecturing Falwell in front of a table full of contemptuous men or stirring up the congregation with her vocal fireworks.
Abe Sylvia (“Dead to Me,” “Nurse Jackie”connect-the-dots )’s script doesn’t hold back in depicting Tammy Faye’s fall into drugs and melancholy. It fails to convey any kind of emotional connection between Tammy Faye and Jim.
The domestic scenes of Tammy Faye and Jim at home show a couple interacting with the same clownish fakery they show to the cameras on their TV shows. Chastain and Garfield are talented actors, but the domestic scenes of Tammy Faye and Jim at home show a couple interacting with the same clownish fakery they show to the cameras on their TV shows. The Bakkers are built of the stiffest cardboard as a pair.
Fortunately, Chastain provides Tammy Faye with the inner vitality that the film requires. Chastain gives a performance that finds the soul under the sparkle, whether she’s remarking that the cosmetic spackle and tattooed eyebrows that cover her face are “the real me” or expressing empathy to AIDS campaigner Steve Pieters (Randy Havens) in a TV appearance that made her a homosexual legend.
Tammy Faye died of lung cancer in 2007, at the age of 65, a shell of her former self. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” allows Chastain to rediscover herself as a vivid force in her own right, rather than a mirror of any man or movement. That is a blessing in every sense of the term.