THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021) – Review
Though Summer’s in its last week or so, the studios have moved on to another season. Not Fall, but a bit closer to Winter as the “awards season” flicks begin to trickle in and nudge the big escapist blockbusters aside (though they’ll capture most of the screens at your multiplex). And what’s ‘catnip” to those academy voters (and many critics)? Why, the big screen biography genre has gotten more than its fair share of the gold. Now, this week’s flick almost slides into the “show biz-bio” heading, though its subject dominated the news headlines on the front page perhaps more than the features in the entertainment section. Ah, but she was certainly fodder for many comics and mimics. Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but at the end of the 20th century, you’d have a tough time trying not to stare into THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE.
The film begins in a much-frequented spot for the title subject, namely a backstage makeup room (we’re not sure if it’s at a theatre or a TV studio). Tammy Faye Baker (Jessica Chastain) is getting “dolled-up” by a makeup artist, who sounds surprised by the different “cosmetic enhancements” that she’s done. Quick cut to several decades earlier in the 1950s, as then pre-teen Tammy LaVallery hears the “siren call” of a backwoods church in full “revival mode”.Mother Rachel (Cheery Jones) insists she not attend (since she’s the result of a previous marriage that ended in divorce), but the wide-eyed child is like a “moth to a flame”. Spring ahead to 1960, as Tammy meets and falls in love with another student, aspiring pastor Jim Baker (Andrew Garfield). They marry and move in with her mother. It’s there that Tammy fashions a set of puppets in order to spread the gospel to small children. The married duo travels the revival circuit with their Bible-based kids’ show, While in Virginia, Jim is transfixed by the dynamic Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) on TV. A chance meeting leads to the Bakers getting their own kids’ show on CBN. But Jim has ideas for a religious late evening “Tonight Show” style program he dubs “The 700 Club”. When Pat later takes over that show, with the aid of the powerful Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), Pat decides to go out on his own with the Praise The Lord (PTL) satellite network, anchored by the “PTL Club” starring himself and Tammy Faye. Money from call-in donations and business connections (known as their “partners”) pours in leading the Bakers into an opulent lifestyle as they expand with a “theme park”, Heritage USA. But the wealth doesn’t bring happiness as the couple drifts apart and Tammy spirals into a prescription drug dependency. And then the press and the feds start looking into “the books”…
The enormously talented Ms. Chastain shows us her incredible range by diving deep into a personality so often mocked and reviled. TF was an easy target for the late-night TV spoofs, so the easy route might have been caricature. But Chastain actually restores her humanity by not going for the easy laughs and shows us the naive small-town gal swallowed up by the machinery of wealth and fame. Tammy, early on, declares her love for people and goes against much of her denomination by embracing the “other’ ( a scene of her interviewing a pastor with AIDS is quite powerful). Chastain shows us Tammy’s unflagging optimism, keeping her sunny outlook as others make her a punchline. She’s amazing. And happily, she’s got a great screen partner in Garfield who imbues Jim with an endearing, goofy, nerdy charm. Then he shows that slow slip into the dark side, as the spark dims in his squinty eyes, and his greed leads to casual cruelty towards his biggest booster. Another great asset to the film is the brutally honest line deliveries by Jones as mama Rachel, who sees beyond the glittery gifts and becomes a moral compass to her daughter, though it barely registers with Tammy. Greed is this fable’s main villain, along with the lust for power, which is given flesh by the fabulous D’Onofrio who channels some of his sinister bravado from his role as the Kingpin on the Netflix Marvel shows, as the strutting conniving Falwell. Sure the Bakers are far from angels, but they don’t come close to this calculating back-stabber. His superior sneer dominates nearly every scene.
Veteran comedy-craftsman Michael Showalter, perhaps best known for helming THE BIG SICK, does an admirable job in attempting to balance camp and real human conflict. The first act generates lots of amusement as the frisky young Bakers engage in clumsy awkward acts of passion. And we got lots of the 70s and 80s kitsch in the recreations of their gaudy TV shows and the melodramatic music (Tammy emulates “Physical” in a shiny disco workout suit). But the conflicts of the second act, the power grabs, and pill-popping, often delve too hard into soap opera melodramatics (though the right mix happens as Tammy lusts after her hunky music producer). Plus the whole final act downfall feels a bit rushed as the actors recreate famous photos and headlines quickly zip in and out (maybe a streaming or cable miniseries would better flesh things out). But as the fun memories of the opening scenes fade, we still have the great performances, enhanced by some impressive and subtle prosthetics that fill out Chastain’s face to emulate Tammy’s near “chipmunk cheeks”, yet the expert enhancement never inhibits Chastain’s facial expression and emoting (I’m reminded of Martin Landau as Bela in ED WOOD). Plus the fashion recreations are spot-on as the polyester pastels parade past in the PTL shows and studio audience. Yes, this story of rags to riches to rags is fairly familiar but Chastain injects a sympathetic spark into THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE that makes it worth reliving.
3 out of 4
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE opens in selected theatres on Friday, September 17, 2021