In 1981, singer Kim Carnes topped the Billboard charts with her cover of the song Bette Davis Eyes. At the time, the eyes of the legendary actress were not the only ones to capture the American imagination. Those of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, quick to release torrents of tears and mascara, were also very famous. Spouse of the equally popular televangelist Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Bakker was unaware that glory would soon follow disgrace. Based on the documentary of the same name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (In the eyes of Tammy Faye) shows a Jessica Chastain larger than life, like the woman she embodies.
Raised in the 1950s in a conservative household by a mother expying forever for her divorce (Cherry Jones, fabulous), Tammy Faye LaValley (Jessica Chastain, sporting more real-than-real prosthetic makeup) meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield, invested) in a Catholic college where their respective charisma brings them together irresistibly. Both already displayed an innate sense of spectacle, an aspect that they imposed during the 1970s and 1980s in their religious television programs. The film looks back on all these periods, focusing especially on the rise and then the fall.
In the background, we are witnessing the advent of religion as entertainment, and especially as a dollar factory. This part is fascinating, among other things because like the rest of the film, it is brought through only through Tammy Faye’s point of view. Yes, the title is to be taken literally and figuratively.
At its head
Exuberant and carried on the glitz, Tammy Faye is delighted to be known and to live in luxury. However, and this is one of the many paradoxes that characterize her, the more it becomes apparent that her husband is obsessed with notoriety and money, the more she becomes disillusioned. A gradual realization triggered, among other things, by the sight of Jim and his assistant exchanging a joke at his expense, then something like a strange moment of intimacy.
In this regard, and this is a second paradox, Tammy Faye was absolutely not homophobic, on the contrary. Indeed, in the midst of the AIDS pandemic, she made a point of showing solidarity with the LGBTQ community, interviewing a man living with HIV and urging his audience to be open and caring.
This, as religion, and certainly its fellow televangelists portrayed in the film by ultra-conservative Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio, one-dimensional), pushed in the other direction. Falwell belches into a scene that must be fought “against liberal, homosexual, feminist…” agendas. Which does not prevent Tammy Faye from making her face.
The film thus paints a flattering and compassionate portrait of the protagonist. When the fraud allegations catch up with Jim and their world falls apart, she is portrayed as an innocent saint. More ambiguity would have added a welcome layer of complexity. Moreover, we regret the prosaic treatment reserved for Tammy Faye’s obsession with puppets: so many psychological considerations left in suspense …
Directing, Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) is strangely wise, at odds with the artistic direction, the hairstyles and the costumes, which embrace the kitsch, the flamboyant quetaine. Because here is a life which called for more formal audacity, even excess, but no: we remain in a risk-free approach (even in the unavoidable small archive-style montages, quickly redundant). Not that it would have been necessary to film this existence as a freakshow, even if we secretly dream of what a John Waters (Polyester, Hairspray) could have done …
It must be said that the script of Abe Sylvia (episodes of the series Nurse Jackie and Dead to Me) sticks to a classical construction, with a weak third act. On this point however, Jessica Chastain saving the best of her sensational performance for the end, we remain captivated.