‘Tis the season for movies that seem to exist solely as awards vehicles for their lead actors. Two years ago it was Renée Zellweger in “Judy.” Last year saw Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman.” And those are just recent examples that happened to snag Oscar noms, unlike the plethora of others that don’t.
This year has already seen Jennifer Hudson in the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect.” It will soon see Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana in “Spencer.” In between lands “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” featuring Jessica Chastain in the scene-chewiest role of (in)famous, showy, and defrocked televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.
Let’s get this out of the way: Chastain is terrific and deserves the Oscar nomination that she’s sure to garner, as do the film’s makeup and hairstylists (seriously). But as captivating as Chastian is playing the effervescent but haunted Faye, both she and the film do not truly transcend high-gloss mimicry until the final half-hour, when we glimpse the movie “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” could and should have been.
Director Michael Showalter’s film presumes that its audience arrives with some advanced awareness of Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who jointly established and grew the PTL (Praise The Lord) religious empire in the 1970s and 1980s. Otherwise, the uninitiated will find little compelling in the story of this peculiar pair, who met at Bible college in Faye’s native Minnesota before marrying and becoming itinerant preachers, hitting the road with their upbeat message of prosperity gospel.
The Bakkers’s success on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network segued into founding The PTL Club television program in 1974. Based in Charlotte, NC, PTL metastasized into a full-fledged media network and, later, a Christian retreat and theme park named Heritage USA.
The common thread running throughout “Eyes of Tammy Faye” is giving its protagonist her due, from her instrumental role in helping build the couple’s ministry to her comparatively inclusive notions of fundamental Christianity, including women and gays — which placed Faye at odds with both her manipulative, opportunistic husband and the rest of the televangelist community, including the starkly anti-homosexual Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Faye invited drug addicts on her show and listened to a guest explain how penile implants work. Her famous 1985 interview with Steve Pieters, a gay minister suffering from AIDS, on the PTL program is rightly hailed as audacious and courageous in the context of the right-wing commercial Christian ethos of that era (even if cringy portions of Faye’s actual interview are excised from the film recreation).
Faye is consistently cast as a victim, from her stern mother’s (Cherry Jones) lifelong reproval to her husband’s marital and financial improprieties. Her rumored flirtation with country music producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach) is linked to Bakker’s lack of affection for her, and Bakker coaxes her into a subsequent tearful televised mea culpa only as a ploy to pry open viewers’ wallets. Faye’s trademark pancake makeup and garish garbs act as her personal armor, shielding her from hurt.
While this portrayal is not without merit, the film gets stuck on empathy for its subject, even during episodes — like her long-standing lavish lifestyle bankrolled by church donors — that cry out for at least some critique or chastisement. Faye is alternatively cast as both savvy and naive, forceful and timid, a key collaborator in constructing a religious conglomerate but unaware of its seedy inner workings.
The narrative cannot decide if it should be a satire or conventional biopic. It ends up as just a hagiography, revealing a subject to be what she always claimed to be while only skimming the surface of its fertile thematic subject matter. The storyline even treads carefully in chronicling Jim Bakker’s misdeeds, settling for the public record without any creative insight, undoubtedly because Bakker is still alive and able to file a lawsuit.
Only near the end, after the Bakkers’s fall from grace, does Chastain’s flamboyant performance find its pathos. She deserves her inevitable plaudits. The film, on the other hand, is just another rags to riches to redemption parable.
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