Tuesday 2 November 2021

Sydney Film Festival (1) - Rod Bishop reviews THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (Michael Showalter, USA, 2021)

Andrew Garfield, Jessica Chastain, 
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Conventional Hollywood bio-pics always sit uncomfortably in film festivals. 

The narratives are either so well known, other cinematic elements have to compensate, or in the case of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the characters may be not be well known, but by the time the credits roll, we wonder why we have just spent two hours with them. Unless…there’s a compensating element and here it’s Jessica Chastain.

It’s a road-to-an-Oscar performance, the actress almost unrecognizable under heavy makeup and facial prosthetics as she belts out a version of a televangelist married to the destined-to-fall-from-grace, religious ‘charismatic’ televangelist Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield).

The biopic tropes all line up – she’s a kid from a poor family and not allowed into the evangelist church where her mother plays piano. When she does sneak in, Tammy creates a sensation by falling on the floor and speaking in tongues. At school, she becomes attracted to the prosperity theology Bakker preaches: “eternal life, eternal love, eternal wealth”. After they marry, Tammy plays second fiddle to Jim as he sets out to build “my empire”.

They start up PTL (Praise the Lord) Television and it becomes the fourth largest network in the USA, soliciting donations by convincing their ‘partners’ (the viewers) to give money to save their souls before Bakker embezzles the ministry’s funds into building projects and their own lavish lifestyles.

Then there’s the inevitable downfall: PTL falls into unsustainable debt, Jim is charged with accounting frauds and the ‘secular’ press has a field-day with his involvement in both gay and straight sexual scandals. Disgraced, he goes to jail for five years, although initially sentenced to 45 years. Tammy’s world falls into the proverbial heap and Hollywood, is left once again to solve the problem of how to give an upbeat ending to such a downbeat story.

Apart from the made-to-order Oscar role, Jessica Castain was undoubtedly attracted to Tammy Faye’s progressiveness during the 50s and 60s. On one show she even demonstrates a Penile Pump “to help people’s marriages” and she establishes ‘homes’ for pregnant teens, unwed mothers, kids with needs and even takes on Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) at lunch over gay rights. Later, in the early 1980s, she champions AIDS victims, doing a television interview with a gay minister while Falwell and Jim roll their eyes and head for the exit.

It’s all a bit air-brushed, though. Falwell is given plenty of coverage, particularly for taking over to clean-up Bakker’s debts. But really, the script should have found space for his wonderful claim that Bakker was “the greatest scab and cancer on Christianity in 2,000 years of church history”.

What a perverse benediction that would have been.


Screens once more at 6.30 pm on Sunday 14 November at Event Cinemas George Street. BOOK TICKETS BY CLICKING HERE







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