Words like campy and cartoonish have been used to describe the lady Tammy Faye, known once as Tammy Faye Bakker and most recently before her death from colon and lung cancer in 2007, as Tammy Faye Messner. Those words can also be used to describe the new biopic about her life, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
Yet due to an eclectic script written by Abe Sylvia (“Dead to Me”), strategic directing by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”), and multi-layered acting by a superb cast, this movie treats its subject with a surprising amount of respect and sympathy.
Led by the phenomenal Jessica Chastain as the lady herself, “Eyes” chronicles the life of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner from her poor Minnesota upbringing with a distant mother, played wonderfully by Cherry Jones (“24”), to her meeting future-husband-aspiring-prosperity-gospel-preacher Jim Bakker as a student at a Minneapolis bible college, to the rise and fall of their PTL empire, and eventually to her attempting to reinvent herself.
Along the way, we are reminded of the parts of Messner’s life that were laid bare during the tabloid parade of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Moving quickly between humorous and sad, the movie manages to provide a little something for everyone, regardless of the audiences’ familiarity with the Bakkers.
Based on an earlier documentary of the same name, “Eyes” spends a great deal of time convincing us that Tammy Faye was an innocent, well-meaning bystander whose heart was in the right place and who simply wanted to be loved and accepted. Her against-the-grain support of the LGBTQ agenda and her stance that we as christians should love everyone, regardless of their lifestyle (and she’s right!) appeals to the political platforms that most movies take these days, yet also adds to the many endearing qualities we see in Messner.
In addition and in a genre where Christians are often portrayed as wide-eyed, out of touch buffoons, this movie actually does a respectable job of showing us a Christian who struggles with the straight and narrow as much as anyone else. Indeed, Messner comes across as sincere as she is over the top. We end up feeling a little bad that we made so much fun of her in the first place.
As I said before, Chastain is fantastic. She will more than likely be nominated for several awards and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the Best Actress Oscar; you read it here first. The ability to portray such a lampooned character, showing us a deep and honest human side, is something only a seasoned and brilliant actor can pull off. Andrew Garfield (“The Amazing Spider Man”) as Jim Bakker provides a stiff and mugging characterization to capture the awkward appeal Bakker had to his flock of followers. Together, they are fun to watch, but Chastain owns the picture.
Whether you actually watched Christian television back in the day, are familiar with the Bakkers due to the tabloids, or don’t know the story at all, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” will intrigue audiences and cause us to take a closer look at the person behind the makeup. In fact and in the end, I think audiences will understand the makeup and its purpose a little more than they did before.
Just as good on the small screen or big, I’d buy a ticket again to see this one in theaters. As I said before, this movie ends up providing something for everyone: drama, humor, and believe it or not, a classy dose of high-end entertainment.
My grade: A
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is rated PG-13 for some mild sexuality and opens in theaters Sept. 17. Running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.