By David Phillips

If you’ve seen the madcap first trailer for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, you might expect it to be an unconventional, satirical biopic in the vein of The Wolf of Wall Street or The People Vs. Larry Flynt. That’s not the film you get, though. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (based on the 2001 documentary of the same name) is actually a rather straightforward film, perfectly competent in the areas of direction, screenplay, lensing, and staging. What saves the film from being a somewhat pedestrian experience is the performance by the actor in the title role.

In all respects, Jessica Chastain delivers a fearless, alchemical performance as Tammy Faye Bakker, the infamous wife of the not quite equally infamous televangelist Jim Bakker (played by a fine Andrew Garfield). I suppose some may peg the role as merely Oscar bait: it’s a “big” part with a physical transformation (the race for best makeup begins here) and plenty of showy scenes (hell, Chastain even sings some of the loopiest Contemporary Christian songs you’ll ever hear). But truly, if there’s ever been a person whose depiction would require a turn-the-dial-up-to-eleven performance, it’s Tammy Faye Bakker.

Chastain goes far beyond artifice in her depiction. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Tammy Faye overhears Jim and his assistant having a laugh over the amount of makeup she wears, referring to her as a “clown.” 

What Chastain and the film are doing here is telling a story of loneliness and stunted growth.

As revealed by the movie, Tammy Faye grew up rejected by her mother (a very good Cherry Jones) for being the only child from her first marriage. In fact, her mother forbade Tammy from going to church because she didn’t want her pastor and fellow parishioners being reminded that she was a divorcee. 

Tammy’s whole life became about seeking acceptance. You can hear it in her babydoll voice, in her people-pleasing performative nature, and you can see it in the garish makeup that, as the years go by, becomes grotesque to the point of disfigurement (it is revealed early on that both her lip-liner and eye-liner are permanent), that she desperately wanted to be seen and validated.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the story of Tammy Faye (if she were gifted with more self-awareness and better judgement) could have been a feminist tale. Much like Miss America (the excellent FX series starring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly), The Eyes of Tammy Faye shows a woman used by men for her promotional skills, but when she sits at the “big boys’ table” with Jim and Jerry Falwell (a malevolent Vincent D’Onofrio), it is clear her ideas and her very presence are not welcome.

And just like Schlafly, one can wonder what Tammy Faye might have been able to do with her genuine talent and relentless ambition had she directed it in a different way. It’s the stuff of tragedy, really, to have such unique gifts—and to have spent your life misusing them.

In one scene that shows a great example of Faye’s capacity for compassion, she goes rogue and interviews a gay man suffering from AIDS on the network she and Jim founded. In that sequence, she tells the man that she and God love him just as he is, while Jim and Jerry Falwell look on in horror.

These moments are where the film is most successful, even if not quite transcendent. The conventions of the biopic (origin story, rise to fame, fall from grace) are all in effect here. And while it’s all reasonably well done, I do wish the picture would have dug a bit deeper. That’s not to say The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t a good film—it is. But it falls short of greatness due to the structural confinements of the screenplay.

There glimpses of the even better, more gonzo film Tammy Faye might have been, such as when the prepubescent Tammy sneaks into church, collapses while speaking in tongues, loses control of her bladder, and a woman from her pew shouts, “She’s peeing herself! Praise the lord!” Or when Tammy strays from marital fidelity by dry-humping her record producer while eight-months pregnant and her water breaks.

The film could have used more of that sort of craziness.

Still, what the film may lack in terms of subversive inspiration, Jessica Chastain more than makes up for. On one level, The Eyes of Tammy Faye may look like a two-hander between Chastain and Garfield, but as clearly committed as Garfield is to his part as the defrocked, swindling, snake-oil-selling confidence man he is, this is the Tammy Show. And thankfully, Tammy Faye is played by one of the finest actors of her generation.

And maybe that in itself is a reminder we needed. When Jessica Chastain burst onto the scene in 2010 in the solid post-WWII thriller The Debt, she then went on an insanely prolific seven-year run of stellar performances (from 2011’s Take Shelter to 2017’s Molly’s Game) that established her as a tip-top of the food chain actor.

However, the last few years of Chastain’s career consists of films that underperformed both critically and commercially. While I can’t speak to the box office potential of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and I’m unsure of what the critical mass for the film will be, there can be no doubt that Chastain has reestablished herself as being in the “first among equals” crowd of actors.

It’s a point that’s made by the film itself. In its final scene, we see a split-screen of Chastain and the real Tammy Faye. Chastain is reenacting a particular press conference side by side with actual footage of her real-life counterpart. And as you watch both of them speak the same words in unison, what you realize is that, over the film’s two hour and six minute running time, Chastain wasn’t just acting, she was channeling—you practically have to squint to tell the difference between them.