#TIFF21 ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ Review: An Epic Character Study of a Compelling American Darling

I’m not old enough to remember Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim took the United States and the entire world by storm with their message that prosperity will follow if only you profess belief in Jesus. The Eyes of Tammy Faye offers a piercing character study of a deeply flawed, deeply sympathetic human being, and a profound commentary on what leads everyday people down the road of religious extremism. 

It has to be said from the outset that Jessica Chastain understood the assignment in a truly spectacular way. Beginning with the recreation of the absolutely iconic makeup, Chastain was at her best by truly embodying the iconic America televangelist. With the affecting Southern accent, and familiar euphemisms to anyone who grew up around Evangelical culture, Chastain transports viewers to the beginning of when the Christian faith was equated with material wealth and political power. 

Makeup artist Linda Dowds must be given a tremendous amount of credit for the work of art that was Chastain’s makeup. She ensured Chastain’s makeup was accurate down to the exact eyeshadow shade and lipsticks used. Tammy Faye-Bakker’s makeup was iconic, with the shockingly vibrant eye shadow, the vivid shade of lipstick, and thickly applied foundation and blush. She was constantly criticized from within the Evangelical community for wearing such elaborate makeup, but it became her signature and a part of her public persona.

Jessica Chastain as “Tammy Faye Bakker” in the film THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Chastain does such an exceptional job of highlighting the humanity of one half of America’s most loved and then most reviled couples. Chastain portrays a woman desperately searching for love after being deprioritized by her husband as he continued to pursue wealth and political power. Although it may be baffling to see a woman remain with a man as unsympathetic as Jim Bakker right until he is finally arrested and jailed for his crimes, in the context of both the Evangelical worldview and Tammy Faye’s own trauma surrounding the divorce of her parents, it makes it easier for viewers to sympathize. 

Chastain also does a superb job in portraying the undeniable compassion of a deeply flawed human being towards those the Evangelical community intentionally marginalized, the LGBTQ+ community in particular. Tammy Faye Bakker was once referred to as the “Judy Garland of televangelism” by Entertainment Weekly. Chastain so accurately portrayed the way Bakker went her own way by intentionally welcoming members of the LGBTQ+ community into her own life, and letting them tell their stories on her platform. 

A special shout out has to be given to Andrew Garfield, who at first I thought had a strange look for Jim Bakker, but when I looked up a picture of the young televangelist beside Garfield in this movie and the resemblance is stunning. Garfield did such a spectacular job of portraying a man who is so easy to hate, as he led (and continues to lead) millions of followers into financial ruin. Garfield and Chastain played so beautifully off of each other, and portrayed the opposite approaches that the Bakkers took in real life. 

(L) Andrew Garfield (R) Jessica Chastain ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’. Credit: Searchlight Pictures

The Eyes of Tammy Faye asks the audience to contemplate religious extremism in a uniquely American context. Much has been written to try and answer the question of what leads people down the road of hate justified by religious belief. Although The Eyes of Tammy Faye certainly doesn’t attempt to be able to definitively answer this question, it presents a case study of one woman in particular caught in a perfect storm of naivety, genuine love for her God and fellow humans, and the promise of untold riches. It’s also telling commentary on society that the real Jim Bakker, after being released from prison in 1994, has been spreading misinformation about the COVID 19 pandemic, and has been promoting a fraudulent cure for COVID 19 that millions of people have purchased. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye ultimately succeeds because it never attempts to justify or explain away any of the actions taken by a deeply complex human being. Although a commentary on Evangelism and more broadly American society, The Eyes of Tammy Faye never deviates from its character study and never stops compelling viewers to reflect on the society that gave us the Bakkers in the first place. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently in theatres. 

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