The Eyes of Tammy Faye may not break new ground for biopics, but Jessica Chastain’s crackerjack lead performance makes it enormously entertaining.
When Jessica Chastain first burst onto the scene in 2011 – starring in seven films that year (The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Debt, Texas Killing Fields, and Wilde Salomé) – she was hailed as “the next big thing,” with some even going so far as to compare her to a young Meryl Streep due to the sheer range of her ravishing talent. As a result of her extensive efforts throughout that year, she was ultimately awarded an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help, firmly putting her on Hollywood’s radar as a true-blue “star-on-the-rise.” And her success didn’t stop there, as, the next year, she nabbed the starring role in Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up feature to The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, earning her second Oscar nomination for the part and just narrowly losing out on the actual award after winning the Golden Globe a month prior.
Unfortunately, ever since that one-two punch of 2011 and 2012, it seems like Chastain has been underappreciated in the industry, in spite of stellar supporting turns in prestige blockbuster fare such as Interstellar and The Martian and critically praised parts in A Most Violent Year and Molly’s Game. However, that tide is surely set to turn thanks to Chastain’s powerhouse performance in this year’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as the actress delivers the type of tantalizing transformation that redefines what the thespian is capable of – and reminds everyone why we fell in love with her in the first place.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye begins on a young Tammy, demonstrating how she’s been drawn to the word of the Lord her whole life – and this is a captivation that continues into adulthood, as an adult Tammy (Chastain) attends North Central Bible College in the hopes of pursuing a profession that allows her to spread scripture further. It’s here where she meets the beaming Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Social Network), with the two quickly falling for one another and hatching up a plan to travel around the United States and share the story of God, as Jim preaches and Tammy sings and plays with puppets for the children.
Before they know it, Jim and Tammy have become Christian celebrities of sorts, catching the attention of the likes of Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds, of Surrogates and Apartment 407) and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio, of Men in Black and Jurassic World), and the two transform into televangelist icons, setting up The PTL Club, a Christian news program that mixes “glitzy entertainment with down-home family values” and allows the couple to convey their messaging to homes all over the globe. And yet, when it becomes clear that Jim is engaging in shady business dealings – and courting several controversies – everything the two have built together is suddenly at risk, and Tammy has to hold onto who she is and rise above the ruination her husband has wrought, showing the world that they haven’t seen the last of her yet.
Oftentimes with these “Oscar-bait” biopics, the films themselves are merely middling, while the central performance is out-of-this-world, receiving the lion’s share of the praise. This has been the case for years – especially recently for promising contenders in the Best Actress category like eventual winner Renée Zellweger in Judy and Jennifer Hudson in Respect – but The Eyes of Tammy Faye bucks this trend. Sure, the story sticks to a fairly familiar “rise, fall, and redemption” structure, but the manner in which this tale is told is enormously entertaining, with Mary Jo Markey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek) and Andrew Weisblum’s (Black Swan, Moonrise Kingdom) energetic editing filling the 126-minute picture with pep and pizzazz, assuring that the pacing never lags. Compared to the banal biopics that give the genre a bad name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a revelation, filling its runtime with enough eccentric events, showy song-and-dance numbers, and moving melodrama to hold our attention the whole way through.
With that being said, let’s just cut to the chase – if you’re seeing The Eyes of Tammy Faye, chances are you’re here for Chastain, and rest assured, the actress knocks this part out of the park. This is the kind of brilliant, full-bodied disappearance into a role that makes you forget you’re watching a movie; at a certain point, the distinction between Jessica Chastain and Tammy Faye is indistinguishable, and the two become one and the same. However, this isn’t solely due to the fact that Chastain is able to so reverentially recreate Faye’s vibrant mannerisms and peculiar voice – underneath all the glitz and the glam, she finds Faye’s true humanity and heart as well, perfectly illustrating why so people found her personality to be irresistible. The scene (taken from real life) in which Tammy interviews gay Christian minister Steven Pieters, who is living with AIDS, is painfully poignant, and, while always remaining in character, Chastain cuts through the theatrics of Faye’s chaotic lifestyle for one moment, succinctly summarizing what made this woman such a wonder to so many.
Garfield is good – if not quite on the same level as Chastain (and it does seem like she wears the makeup better than he does) – but his Jim is most memorable when going back-and-forth with Tammy, as the two bring out both the best and the worst in one another, and the actors convince us of this troubled couple’s connection via their charming chemistry, even when things are truly headed south. A similar standout amongst the supporting cast is Cherry Jones (Signs, HBO’s Succession) as Tammy’s mulish mother Rachel, who, despite their pained past, still wants the best for her daughter and doesn’t trust the people she surrounds herself with or the live she leads. Their tug-of-war is a constant source of tension throughout the film, and Jones’ perceptively personifies Rachel’s perspective.
All-in-all, The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn’t break any new ground for biopics, but it does take its potentially predictable plot and punch it up with a purposely tacky tone that proves to be perfect for capturing the totality of the Bakkers’ larger-than-life personalities, while simultaneously benefitting from the sheer brilliance of Jessica Chastain’s bravura star turn as the titular Tammy Faye. As a character who could’ve quickly become a caricature, Chastain treats the role with respect, never shying away from Tammy Faye’s shortcomings but also always highlighting her authentic affection for others and enduring affability. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best performances any actor will give in 2021.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at TIFF on September 13, 2021. The film will be released in US theaters on September 17, 2021.
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