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  • Nate Adams

Review: Jessica Chastain a marvel in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye'

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures


“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a classic case where the performances, makeup, and costume designers are the main attraction. It’s a knockout showcase for Oscar contender Jessica Chastain playing the famed televangelist, Tammy Faye who, with her crooked husband Jim Bakker, amassed a great deal of wealth through shady and manipulative tactics on their cable network. Director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) does a decent, if flawed, job at exploring the rise and fall of arguably the most famous televangelist personalities, save for maybe Pat Robertson. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” acts as a satirical dig at how easy it was for viewers to get duped into forking over thousands of dollars in pledges each month, but also attempts to peel back the layers of Faye’s beleaguered upbringing.

Stuffing several decades worth of material into a tight two-hour package, Showalter keeps the tempo moving beginning in 1960 when Tammy and Jim meet during college. What began as an honest relationship slowly blossomed into a business partnership that fueled upstart cable broadcast company, Praise the Lord network (PTL) where during its peak garnered 20 million eyeballs daily. It’s no secret Tammy and Jim were embezzling money from donations to keep up with appearances and when attacked in the press, they were quick to throw it back at the viewer and use it as a marketing tool.

Adapted from the 2000 documentary of the same name, and written by Abe Sylvia, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” might not always feel authentic and teeters heavily on the dramatization side with a showier portrayal from Andrew Garfield, who completely disappears into the role of Jim Bakker despite the prosthetics becoming somewhat of a distraction, it’s never boring. Primarily because Chastain doesn’t allow one millisecond of screen time go wasted, perfectly encapsulating Tammy Faye’s dissent as a boisterous and unique screen presence to pill popper on a dime. Chastain’s a force of nature and delivers a performance shy of caricature, and she absolutely nails the vocal cadence (“Don’t ya know!”)

Solid turns from Vincent D’Onofrio, playing Jerry Falwell Sr and Cherry Jones as Tammy’s mother round out the supporting cast who all seek to elevate Chastain’s manic zaniness. Part of me wishes Showalter would have dug deeper into the emotional core and complexities of Tammy Faye’s marriage and motherhood (she has two kids the movie never bothers to show). But Showalter stages the iconic interview were Tammy compassionately chatted with Steve Pieters, a gay man with aids, on her show. At the time considered sacrilegious, especially for a conservative leaning network, many don’t remember Tammy was an unlikely ally in the AIDS movement and often preached about how God, like herself, loved everyone.

It shows there’s more to the story than heavy, cartoonish eyebrows, and the glossy makeup that became one of the defining factors of Tammy Faye’s legacy, but a woman manipulated by the media and her male counterparts. For everything “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” muffles in translation, it never loses sight of its subject.

Grade: B

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE is now playing in theaters.


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