The Eyes of Tammy Faye never made it to ‘a cinema near us,’ despite being relentlessly trailed. Still, as previously documented, we’ve signed up to Disney+ for a short spell, thanks to their dastardly decision not to release Turning Red anywhere else – and the presence of Tammy Faye on the platform makes us slightly less aggrieved about it.
Michael Showalter’s film works just fine on the small screen; it’s about TV after all: an intimate biopic of one of the USA’s most infamous televangelists, based on a documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. After hosting a successful Christian puppet show for their local channel, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), co-founded The PTL Club in 1974, and soon found they had a TV hit on their hands. By 1978, they were ready to embark on a new money-making project: a Christian theme park called Heritage USA, all funded by their fans/parishioners – or ‘partners’ as they referred to them.
The couple’s finances burgeoned along with their popularity, and they were soon splashing the cash, luxuriating in fur coats and art-filled mansions. Tammy gained notoriety for her outspoken support for the LGBT community, and particularly HIV/AIDS sufferers. Other high-profile evangelists disapproved of her convictions, but Tammy’s public preaching of love and acceptance made a real difference to the popular discourse. Jim, on the other hand, was causing controversy in other ways, and – in 1989 – found himself convicted on several counts of fraud and conspiracy, and was imprisoned for his crimes.
If Tammy is a woman of contradictions (and she is), then so is the film. There are some glorious sequences (the final rendition of Hallelujah, for example, and Tammy’s disarming approach to a group of teenage hoodlums poking fun at her). But there are also glaring omissions. The couple’s early path to local TV is never shown, and Richard’s extra-marital dalliances and abuses – both hetero and homosexual – are only tangentially referred to. Of course, we are seeing things through Tammy’s eyes, as the title makes clear, but her ignorance means that we miss some of the most compelling aspects of the tale.
Make no mistake, Chastain is exceptional in the titular role: this is a truly stellar performance. Her Tammy is a wonderfully appealing woman, a heady mix of strength and vulnerability, naïvety and nouse. Even when she’s ridiculous – with her tattooed make-up and desperate smile – she’s somehow dignified and commands respect. Chastain pulled the Oscar for this last night, and it’s not hard to see why.
Still, a perfect performance doesn’t always equate to a perfect film, and this one sadly falls short.