San Francisco Chronicle
Chastain works to find authenticity in ‘Eyes’
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.