San Francisco Chronicle

Chastain works to find authentici­ty in ‘Eyes’

- G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ajohnson@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @BRfilmsAll­en

Bakkers’ scandalous fall in the ’80s, when Jim was caught up in a sex scandal and the Bakkers’ empire, which included the theme park Heritage USA, collapsed under shady financial issues that eventually sent Jim to prison.

Director Michael Showalter has directed a big, bold colorful film with a cast that also includes Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell and a terrific performanc­e from Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s mother, Rachel, who serves as the movie’s moral conscience. The throwback to ’80sera televangel­ism is particular­ly irresistib­le visually, but there’s a condescend­ing glibness to it.

Whatever you think of the Bakkers, they were people who were, like most TV personalit­ies, different when the cameras were off. Though they invite caricature, Showalter’s ironic tone keeps us at an emotional remove. It’s easy to make fun of them, harder to understand them.

To be fair, the Bakkers were very aware of their onscreen personas as being performati­ve. At the height of their fame, as the stars of the Praise the Lord Club, the pioneering television evangelist­s were beloved by millions — signing off each broadcast with their catchphras­e, “God

loves you. He really, really does” — and fabulously wealthy. To their detractors, Jim was a snake oil salesman swindling his followers and Tammy Faye was an object of comic relief, with her squeaky-voiced puppeteeri­ng and heavy makeup making her appear almost clownish.

What’s interestin­g is that Tammy Faye underwent a cultural reassessme­nt late in life, fueled by the gay community, which considered her an icon because of her unapologet­ic embrace of homosexual­s during the AIDS crisis at a time when other televangel­ists sided with Falwell’s “Moral Majority” during the Reagan era.

Years after the scandals, evangelica­ls recognized in Tammy Faye a fellow traveler who had wandered off the path.

Her character reassessme­nt was front and center of a 2000 documentar­y, also called “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” from Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey and narrated by RuPaul. The sweet, low-budget documentar­y portrays Tammy Faye as a misunderst­ood humanitari­an who was welcoming to all and who felt that preaching the gospel expanded beyond churchgoin­g and daily prayer.

Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which credits the documentar­y as its inspiratio­n, recreates some of the doc’s scenes almost verbatim. But while imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, Abe Sylvia’s ambitious but shallow script has something spirituall­y missing — namely, a point to it all.

The film tips its hand by painting Tammy Faye’s comeback appearance, at a megachurch conference in Utah, as a woman lost in her own delusions. What really happened is in the documentar­y, and it wasn’t that.

Chastain, who also can be seen opposite Oscar Isaac in HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” almost singlehand­edly rescues the biopic from its own cynicism. At least she’s trying to find some authentici­ty and brings as much complexity as she can to a person at once inspiring and ridiculous, a woman who stood up to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell but got lost in a world of excess, hiding behind a persona that grew sadly grotesque.

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