Revisiting my past reviews to post on Letterboxd, I was reminded of my take on the 2011 drama Circumstance, about the lives of lesbians in Iran. “I walked in to Circumstance pretty sure that life as a woman under a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy would not be not much fun,” I wrote. “Whaddya know, I was right.”
That may sound cold, but as a few minutes on Letterboxd will remind you, there are a lot of movies out there to see, including many profound films about the lives of women in Iran and elsewhere. A new entry has to really bring something to the table, and that’s where The Eyes of Tammy Faye also fails. You’ll probably walk in to this movie pretty sure that life as a woman married to a corrupt televangelist isn’t much fun…whaddya know, you’re right.
Perhaps inevitably, where Michael Showalter’s biopic finds most purchase is with the fun parts of Tammy Faye Bakker’s life. Played with relish by Jessica Chastain, Bakker comes alive when she’s entertaining early audiences with puppets, buying furs for her family in the salad days, and singing about Jesus on television. It’s when the cameras break their satellite feeds and the Bakkers retire to their well-lubricated (in many senses of the word) marital bed that the fun stops and Eyes starts to feel rote.
The new movie is based on a 2000 documentary by the same name, and in the end may function best as an advertisement for that earlier film. Watching scene after outlandish scene, we wonder, did that really happen? Yes, it did.
Written by Abe Sylvia, Eyes makes a case for Tammy as an essential force — and, much more often than her husband, a force for good — in the Bakkers’ historic Reagan-era ministry. Andrew Garfield, rising to Chastain’s level, plays Jim Bakker as a man whose drive for power consumes him; more flawed than evil, the closeted bisexual nonetheless behaves cruelly toward his wife, who ultimately falls from grace alongside him.
Could things have gone differently if Tammy Faye had been allowed to tell her own story during her lifetime? Could she have had a Martha-Stewart-style comeback? Unfortunately, the new biopic fails Tammy Faye as a character: we see the tragedy of her story, but not her complexity as a person. We see her talents, but don’t see her strengths; we learn about her losses, but don’t learn anything beyond the superficial about the weaknesses that made her vulnerable.
Tammy Faye deserves better, especially because — as the film aptly reminds us — for Minnesotans, she’s one of our own. Raised in International Falls, she met and married Jim in Minneapolis. Maybe it’s time for the History Theatre to tell Tammy’s story, and finally do her justice.
Photo courtesy Searchlight Pictures