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TIFF: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) was a child of divorce, something that caused her very religious mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) great anguish. She’s kept out of the church that her mother, stepfather and siblings attend but Tammy Faye is inspired by the religious fervor she witnesses from window and is determined to be a part of it. Years later, she meets  Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student at her Christian college. The two see eye-to-eye on religious matters, including the idea God’s blessings come in several forms including wealth and business opportunities. They preach the gospel first with a puppet show they take on the road and next on television with The Jim and Tammy  Show on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) network CBN.

Seizing every new opportunity and making several of their own, the religious duo became television icons. They started their own network, PTL, and hosted their own hit show. It made them rich but soon their tight bond began to sour. Jim was terrible with money and resented Tammy Faye’s star power. Tammy Faye faced many demons including her own husband, loneliness, a fractured relationship with her mother, an addiction to benzos and opposition from one of the biggest leaders in the Christian world, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). As things unravel, Tammy Faye would need to find the strength to be true to herself.

Based on the 2001 documentary by the same name and directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stunning biopic that hits all the right marks, including an exceptional performance by Jessica Chastain. She got Tammy Faye’s energy, her Minnesota accent and all of her mannerisms all down to a T. The prosthetics and make-up are only mildly distracting and really you can’t help but see Tammy Faye through Jessica Chastain. The film doesn’t try to demonize Jim or Tammy Faye Bakker. They are both presented as flawed personalities, Jim more so than Tammy Faye, who had good intentions but went very badly astray. Tammy Faye is a well-rounded character. We see all aspects of her personality including her great capacity for love and her sympathy for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, something that went against the evangelical mindset at the time. Tammy Faye epitomizes what we think Christianity should be and pitted against Jerry Falwell we see what it generally has become. With that said, at no point does it criticize Christian religion. Rather it criticizes individuals and their actions.

And let me for a moment talk about how well this movie uses disruptive sound. There are several moments in the film where the sound of a phone ringing cuts into a rather emotional scene. There is also Tammy Faye singing against a very silent backdrop and a tension filled scene is disrupted by a baby crying. It’s quite effective. The film also uses ’70s style fonts and mimics grainy television footage which adds to the nostalgic appeal.

At the TIFF Tribute Awards, Jessica Chastain, who also served on the film as producer, talked about the biopic as her passion project. She’s been working on it for 10 years and wanted to make sure that her portrayal of Tammy Faye really showed the love and compassion she had instead of just depicting her as a grifter. 

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a vague notion as a child of who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I definitely remember the scandal that landed Jim Bakker in jail. Years later I watched the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and that’s what gave me my first real introduction into who Tammy Faye Bakker was as a person. That show was like a Real World type format but with celebrities. For the second season, they purposely put Tammy Faye in the home with porn star Ron Jeremy in hopes that it would stir up drama. Other cast members included Erik Estrada and Vanilla Ice. I was really impressed with how Tammy Faye handled herself. They put her in situations where she would have to apologize or defend herself and she was ALWAYS true to herself. She showed a genuine love for others that really struck a chord with me and that I never forgot. Years later watching this biopic about her that same Tammy Faye came through.

I highly recommend this film. It’s one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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