Watching this film I was immediately put in mind of Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. That movie, like this one, presents a real life character, two in this case, who seem too good to be true and where your cynical mind is just waiting for the facade to drop and for these saints of the TV screen to fall from their pedestals and be revealed as the dark and selfish personalities that they are.
Of course in Heller’s Mr Rogers biopic this never happens but in the case of Jim Bakker, the famous telly evangelist at the heart of this tale, it does all come crashing down. The documentary of the same name that this is based on actually posited that Jim Bakker was largely innocent and that he had been set up for crimes he didn’t commit, but this film doesn’t choose to go that way, not quite. This is definitely a story of a fraudulent holy man who is exposed as a liar and a creep.
It isn’t actually his story though, as the title suggests this is about his wife and costar, the image conscious Tammy Faye and she is presented, perhaps fairly perhaps not, as someone who had nothing but good intent for those around her. She is the beautiful Faye in the neighbourhood.
This black and white approach is actually a failing of the movie, and an area in which Heller’s film excelled. There is certainly more that could have been explored in respect of Tammy Faye’s compliance in her partner’s activities. Certainly she seemingly had nothing to do with his abuse of at least one other woman, but she does happily spend the riches that their brainwashed followers repeatedly dig in their pockets for without conscience. There was also something in the way that people blindly trusted these celebrities, spouting corny and shallow ‘truths’ on a huge national stage, that would have been fascinating to examine in light of January 2021’s events on Capital Hill. The Eyes of Tammy Faye only has eyes for Tammy Faye though and in the film makers, opinion she is apparently unimpeachable. Naive, pathetic, possibly not very bright, but unfailingly kind hearted and bold.
What this allows them to do is paint her as a hero, as she stands up for gay rights and the like at a time when the church found this deplorable. The Tammy Faye of The Eyes of Tammy Faye just shares the love of God with everyone, almost manically. This should be celebrated but it lacks weight as Tammy Faye never really feels like a believable person. They seem to want to say that she is both fake and authentic, with those big eyelashes and permanently lined lips, but the balance is not quite there. Jessica Chastain does give a committed performance that arguably deserves the Oscar she won on Sunday night (sadly overshadowed by Will Smith’s thuggish behaviour minutes beforehand) but it is a bit of a caricature.
The Ripley Factor:
There is one sequence where Tammy Faye becomes a true feminist hero. It is at a social function where all of the players in American TV evangelism are gathered with their families. The men are on one table and the wives on another but Tammy Faye pulls up a chair with the boys and starts to question them on their bigotry. They even throw in a line about standing up against the feminist agenda that she has to refute, seemly so as to make this demonstrably a gender issue.
The movie needed more moments like this but without them this scene did feel a little laboured and out of place. Like so much of the movie, and it’s leading lady, it just felt too consciously constructed.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is on Disney+ now