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All praise to Chastain in ‘ The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

- Brian Truitt

One of the Ten Commandmen­ts states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Considerin­g her knockout, praise- all- her- glory performanc­e in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” however, it’s going to be tough not to worship at the altar of Jessica Chastain throughout this Oscar season.

Directed by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”), the biopic ( eeeg; rated R; in theaters Friday) is definitely worth several hallelujah­s as it follows the rise and fall of televangel­ist couple Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They created the world’s largest religious broadcasti­ng network in the 1970s and ’ 80s and had it all undone by shady business dealings, sex scandals and conniving, powerful peers.

Entertaini­ng and surprising­ly funny given the subject matter, the movie also is an exquisitel­y acted affair paced by Chastain ( who also is a producer), turning in a career- best effort as the complex Tammy Faye. With the actress’s caring touch, the TV personalit­y and LGBTQ icon is treated with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the tabloid laughingst­ock with over- the- top eyelashes and clownish makeup some might remember.

The film follows Tammy Faye’s upbringing in Minnesota, charting her path from a 10- year- old believer ( Chandler Head) discourage­d from attending church because she was a child of divorce to the devout chipmunk- cheeked young woman ( Chastain) who falls for awkwardly charismati­c Jim Bakker ( Andrew Garfield) at a Midwestern bible college. They quickly get married – much to the chagrin of Tammy Faye’s mom ( Cherry Jones) – and head out on the road as traveling preachers, where they meet the influential Pat Robertson ( Gabriel Olds) and gain a TV following: Tammy Faye entertains kids with her signature puppet show, while Jim hosts the Johnny Carson- inspired talk show “The 700 Club.”

The Bakkers strike out on their own with the Praise The Lord network, which becomes a massive moneymakin­g venture that puts the couple on the radar of ultra- conservati­ve holy man Jerry Falwell ( Vincent D’Onofrio). PTL becomes a giant in the TV space, so much so that the Bakkers dream up the Heritage USA theme park as part of their sprawling real estate ventures. However, it’s a house of cards that behind the scenes grows downright Shakespear­ean: Jim is increasing­ly stressed out and jealous of Tammy Faye’s popularity, Tammy resents being sidelined and ignored by Falwell and his misogynist­ic ilk, plus her advocacy for AIDS and HIV patients angers Falwell, whose anti- homosexual­ity, anti- liberal agenda is increasing in importance within the Republican party at the time.

“Tammy Faye” definitely serves up its title character as a peach in the middle of a bunch of bad apples: “Faith isn’t political,” Tammy Faye tells Falwell at a soiree, and it’s a potent line that says volumes in modern times where politics has become a religion

for many Americans. But there also is a humorous, naughty side that the film brings out in its main couple, especially in the beginning when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their prurient interests as hormonally charged youngsters. The film refreshing­ly treats them as human beings and not one- dimensiona­l puritanica­l stereotype­s.

An immediate best actress contender ( if not front- runner), Chastain lends an exuberance to Tammy Faye that’s infectious – even as she sings peppy gospel numbers in glittery ’ 80s wear. And as the character’s faith is tested in various ways and an Ativan problem arises alongside her Diet Coke addiction, the actress is transforme­d as well with gaudier makeup and wardrobe the more she struggles internally and her world falls apart.

Garfield is a great scene partner for her, with the character arc of a man who has a hard time fending off temptation­s. Jones is wonderful as Tammy Faye’s adorably grumpy albeit wise and caring mother, as is D’Onofrio as the villainous Falwell, a hate- filled contrast to the caring Tammy Faye.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a cautionary tale, a redemption story and a throwback that feels particular­ly resonant as the country wrestles with the separation of church and state, all with a heavenly Chastain at her finest.

 ?? PROVIDED BY SEARCHLIGH­T PICTURES ?? Jessica Chastain stars as Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
PROVIDED BY SEARCHLIGH­T PICTURES Jessica Chastain stars as Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

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