The Eyes of Tammy Faye makes for a better documentary than it does a biopic.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on September 23, 2021
Rating 2 /5
Tammy Faye was a televangelist icon with quite a sordid history. She pursued a life of faith hoping to find answers and lead a good life. The hole she went down with a version of Christianity that profited off of television viewers led her to some dark places. This biopic, based on the documentary of the same title, tries to humanize that figure who went from being a dolled-up Christian placed on pledge drives to an advocate for the LGBT community. It also wants you to laugh at her with aspects of this tale turning into a dark comedy.
There’s certainly a conflict of tones considering the performances at play. The highlight is, of course, Jessica Chastain in the role of Tammy. She gives her character a sense of desperation and perk, as well as the amazing singing voice she was known for. Despite all the makeup and wrinkles slathered over Chastain’s look, she still manages to look just a tad more attractive than Tammy. That being said, her tragic need for validation and love comes through remarkably well, rarely ever feeling hollow.
Tammy’s legacy was built up by the charismatic televangelist of Jim Bakker. Bakker is played by Andrew Garfield and he gives this performance some energy but also perhaps too much exaggeration. His infectious and eerie smile brings almost a cartoonish quality to his overblown midwest accent. There are, however, a handful of scenes that perfectly showcase just how manipulative Jim was in trying to string Tammy along for their own financial gain. Most of the time Jim is framed in a way where we're meant to laugh at his gullibility and hypocrisy for his television sermons. Dragging Tammy into this satire, however, feels a bit jarring.
The film proceeds at a brisk pace of zooming through Tammy’s life from the 1960s to the 1990s. We watch her rise and fall but almost from a distance with the onslaught of montages. The few moments of her more intimate, personal, and tragic almost feel like off-beat pit stops on Tammy’s fame trip. They just feel so off when compared to the rest of the film. There’s a fantastic scene where Tammy prays for answers from God for her situation where Jim doesn’t love her and her life lacks fulfillment. Crafted with Tammy’s inner voice, however, it feels like a much different picture. It contrasts deeply with the way scenes are comically cut so that Tammy’s dealings with divorce are treated more with absurdity than sympathy. As the story unfolds, you really do wish the film had gone for less of a breezy Scorcese style of picture.
What also doesn’t help the picture is the contrasting performances. For as much as Chastain steals the spotlight, you simply can’t forget Cherry Jones in the role of Tammy’s mother. She’s not playing up the midwest mom with the typical Fargo-style exaggeration. Jones perfectly portrays such a character where she feels real. Less real, however, is Vincent D'Onofrio in the role of religious leader Jerry Falwell. While D’Onofrio looks the part, he plays it more like he’s in a sketch around the character, dialing up the performative delivery to a cartoonish level.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye makes for a better documentary than it does a biopic. There’s a handful of strong performances and the film certainly deserves some credit for that alone. The sad part is that while trying to humanize Tammy Faye, the film asks even more of its audience that you laugh along at her on her downfall into divorce, drug addiction, and being kicked out of her own religious apparatus that she barely had a part in forming. And it’s just a little hard to chuckle along at the scene where she’s overdosing on television because she found out her husband had been cheating on her.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.