A good biopic can be judged by a fairly simple rubric: If you know nothing about the subject matter going in, is the movie still an interesting and well-told story? The best person to judge an effective film biography is the one who is totally ignorant about the film’s subject. That’s just about impossible in the case of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the new film about the marriage and infamous professional meltdowns of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Most people over 40 (certainly the demographic of this film) remember the make-up-streaked saga of Jim and Tammy Faye. But, the Bakkers were young once, and before the film arrives at their hubristic downfall, we learn a bit more information about the childhood and young adulthood of Tammy Faye LaValley (the amazing Jessica Chastain). When she meets young Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at North Central Bible College, she finally understands those funny feelings her mama warned her about. Both true believers and with dreams of preaching the gospel, Jim and Tammy set off to change the face of evangelical Christianity through the power of television. Theirs is a relationship based in Christ and lust.
Although not entirely let off the hook, the film definitely presents the Bakkers more sympathetically than perhaps they deserve. The Bakkers are innocent souls in comparison to some of the other Christian superstars they meet, such as the parasitic Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the credit-grabbing Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). In fact, Jim’s downfall almost seems like a tragic mistake rather than the result of a critical character flaw. Meanwhile, Tammy Faye is the wide-eyed pawn who gets played by those she thought she could trust. Yeah, sure. Unfortunately, the film never delves deeply enough into the moral and ethical concerns regarding the Bakkers’ predatory and manipulative fundraising on behalf of their ministry; it’s too busy demonizing everyone else in comparison.
Still, there are remarkable performances to be found, led by Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye. Even when one can feel the filmmakers’ manipulative hand twisting Faye’s legacy toward the positive, it’s impossible to not be seduced by Chastain’s wide-eyed innocence. Her Tammy Faye is a force of nature, a ceaselessly optimistic people-person who seems to care genuinely for the world and people in it. There’s a remarkable scene where Tammy Faye overhears some teens making fun of her appearance. Rather than sulk away, she marches right up to them and offers her hand in introduction; it’s a great character moment. Overall, Chastain’s performance brings out Tammy Faye’s compassion and ignorance with great clarity and grace. It will surely be Oscar-nominated.
Andrew Garfield’s performance as Jim Bakker is also terrific. The British-born actor puts on a fantastic accent and manages to make Bakker almost sympathetic, despite the fact that he’s an arrogant opportunist who really does think that his greedy inner-voice is the word of God.
The themes in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” are rich and well-dramatized, even though the symbolism becomes a bit heavy-handed (“Jesus Keeps Taking Me Higher” is sung while Tammy Faye is popping Ativan. Get it?), and Tammy Faye gets off the hook too easily. Although certainly a kind person who did her best to redeem herself in her last years, was she really that ignorant? Should ignorance and apathy be forgiven and forgotten so readily?
It’s an interesting theme to consider, and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” has the courage to address it. That said, one has to wonder if the filmmakers didn’t fall for a little of the Tammy Faye razzle-dazzle themselves.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
Directed by Michael Showalter
Rated PG-13 (sexual content and drug abuse)
Opens today at Laemmle Newhall
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.