‘The definition of Oscar bait’

There aren’t many screen heroines with the garishly bad taste of Tammy Faye Bakker, brought to flamboyant life by Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. But the real Tammy was also a one-of-a-kind spectacle. In the 1970s and ’80s, comedians mocked her tarantula-like fake eyelashes and crying fits. But she was also embraced by her target audience, viewers of the popular daily talk show she starred in with her husband, Jim Bakker, one of the most successful televangelists of the time. He preached to the converted and asked them for money, and she belted out faith-based songs in a show broadcast on their own flourishing satellite television network. They even built a Christian theme park, Heritage USA. The empire crumbled after Jim admitted, in 1987, to paying hush money to a woman with whom he’d had a one-night stand, and two years later was convicted of fraud over their company’s fundraising. On the day he was pronounced guilty, Tammy Faye, ever the show woman, sang on the courthouse steps.

In hindsight, she is a fascinating cultural figure for deeper reasons. Tammy Faye lived at the crossroads of fame, money, politics and religion at a crucial turning point in US history. The Bakkers became household names at the moment when evangelical Christians were gaining political power, getting behind Ronald Reagan. The gap between those who loved and those who scorned Tammy Faye foreshadowed the deep liberal-conservative divide in US politics today. Who was this woman, and what did she know about the scandals and political manoeuvres swirling around her?  

There must have been many sophisticated ways to delve into all that on screen, but Chastain – who generated the project and is a producer and star – and her colleagues chose to make something simpler. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is the definition of Hollywood Oscar bait, with a dynamic, physically shape-shifting performance at its centre, and a screenplay that suffers from all the flaws of a standard biopic. Following Tammy from girlhood to her post-scandal life after divorcing Jim in 1992, the story zooms from event to event, wig to wig, big red curls to big blonde curls, without letting us see why things happened. The director, Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), always keeps things moving and lively. The costumes – bright turquoise dresses and oversized earrings – capture Tammy’s over-the-top style in the ’80s. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye is exactly what you’d expect from an unimaginative biopic: colourful, energetic and shallow.

The feature is based on Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which Bakker herself contributed to. Both attempt to redeem her from mockery. And both tell the story from her point of view, although Abe Sylvia’s screenplay largely wastes that advantage, revealing what Tammy saw but rarely what she was thinking about it.

Tammy’s Pentecostal mother, played by Cherry Jones with her usual ease, puts the fear of God in the child. When Tammy is a young woman, Chastain appears in a puffy blonde wig and gives us the character who never really goes away, a giggly, optimistic innocent with a little girl’s voice. Throughout the story Chastain makes us believe that Tammy truly loves God and other people. She does justice to her singing and on-air charisma. It’s a dazzling performance even as the character ages and the actress acquires more padding and prosthetics, more layers of silvery eye shadow. (The real Tammy Faye, who was never charged with any crime, died in 2007).

At Bible college, Tammy meets Jim Bakker, played by Andrew Garfield with just the right amount of smirk and sleaze – enough so that we notice, but not enough to make us turn away. Tammy loves make-up and music, which her church frowns on. Bakker, in a practice turn at preaching, says: “God does not want us to be poor.” They have found their soulmates.

Tammy is often the brains behind Jim. She sees the evangelist Pat Robertson’s television show and tells Jim he’d be even better at that. And at a lunch for televangelists and their wives, she strides past the women’s table and joins the men surrounding the influential, archconservative Jerry Falwell. As Falwell, Vincent D’Onofrio has the right glasses but isn’t much more than a foil for Tammy. He rages against feminists and homosexuals, and she sweetly says she just sees everyone as a human being God loves.

Tammy Faye was, in fact, ahead of her time and out of step with her church in her support of gay rights. In a recreated scene from her show in 1985, she talks to a gay man with Aids, weeping, “How sad that we as Christians… won’t go up to an Aids patient and put our arms around them and tell them that we care.” It is a revealing moment, but just one more stop as the story races on, Jim ignores Tammy sexually, and she leans into her own stereotype. “They’re my trademark,” she says when a make-up artist dares to suggest removing her false lashes.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye works well enough on its own limited terms, except for the giant question it teases and never actually engages with. What did Tammy know? She sees Jim wrestling with another man and looks alarmed. She dismisses allegations that he is gay, then turns, lets her smile fade and pops another tranquiliser. When news reports surface about Bakker’s financial schemes, she says to him tentatively, “We’re not doing anything wrong.” He responds, “Is that a question?” Ignoring the chance to know more, she simply says, “No.” Wilful blindness, even so sketchily filled in, doesn’t exactly make her the heroine this engaging and frustrating film purports her to be. The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t nuanced, but no one ever said nuance and Oscars go together.


The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens on 17 September in the US.

Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Read on bbc.com