Review by Cat Early
Upon the announcement and subsequent release of Michael Showalter’s new biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), it would have been an understatement to say that my initial reaction was to be somewhat skeptical of it. We are, after all, living through an era in which biopics have become immensely popular (and profitable), with productions gaining notoriety by banking on the gimmick of casting high-profile stars to play high-profile figures – Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018), Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019), and the recent House of Gucci (Ridley Scott, 2021) all being examples that come to mind in this respect. So, when it was revealed that Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield would star alongside each other to play the infamous Bakker couple, my expectations were understandably low, as I assumed that this film would be destined to become nothing more than one more Oscar-bait biopic in the lengthy string of hollow nomination attempts.
What I received instead was a flawed, but nonetheless incredibly genuine portrayal of the life and accomplishments of Tammy Faye Bakker, a controversial figure remembered by the public today primarily due to her career as one of America’s most popular televangelists in the 1980s, the scandal that brought down her empire in the 1990s, and her current reigning status as one of the queer community’s largest icons today. Far from critical of Tammy Faye’s actions, the film is surprisingly sympathetic in how it goes about portraying and justifying its titular character, chronicling her journey from the misunderstood eldest child of a working-class religious family to one of the country’s wealthiest and most revered spiritual figures to a disgraced criminal finding solace in her community once more.
The film can often feel nakedly honest in how it addresses some of the events of Tammy Faye’s life – namely the inclusion of and refusal to shy away from the multiple allegations made towards her husband, Jim Bakker, or the sensitive and alarmingly historically accurate recreation of Tammy Faye’s notorious interview with a gay AIDS patient at the height of the AIDS crisis. These snapshots forge an image of Tammy Faye, one that permeates after her death and manages to shift and reframe the narrative surrounding a, possibly misguided, but ultimately compassionate woman whose legacy until now may have largely been misconstrued by the uncharitable media of the era.The Eyes of Tammy Faye is honest in its title in that it doesn’t often concern itself with the views or opinions of others in the film – this is truly Tammy Faye’s film. Tammy Faye does what she wants, what she needs to do, or what she feels is right in any given moment and we identify with that compulsion. Of course, Chastain’s performance is infallible, and Garfield holds his own in his portrayal of the more ambiguously motivated Jim Bakker. The film is far from phenomenal, but what it does demonstrate is an authentic and deeply human need to clarify the motivations and actions of a woman mischaracterised by the world she lived in.