The Eyes Of Tammy Faye ****
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Michael Showalter
To an outside observer, the idea that a Christian TV network could be one of a nation’s biggest seems somewhat absurd. But that is indeed the case in the US, where televangelism has been going strong since the 1950s and reached its peak in the 1980s. The biggest of its stars were the Bakkers, Jim and Tammy Faye, the latter of whom is the subject of this long-awaited biopic starring Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help, Miss Sloane) in a now Oscar-winning role, who also produced this gloriously eccentric film.
Tammy is at Bible college when she meets Jim (Garfield - The Amazing Spider-Man, tick tick… BOOM!, The Social Network), a charming but fanatical zealot, who is just as determined to bring the “Good News” to the public as she’s. They hastily marry and set out on the road, only to find themselves scouted by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), who give them their own show. Together with another pastor (D’Onofrio - Full Metal Jacket, Jurassic World, Daredevil) they soon establish the Praise The Lord (PTL) Satellite Network and become the biggest televangelists on TV. But as Tammy both wins the hearts of the American public and causes a stir among fundamentalist Christians at the same time by reaching out to the victims of HIV/AIDS, her husband is elbow deep in his own transgressions, both financially and sexually.
There’s no doubt that this is an unusual subject matter to see given the big-screen treatment in the era of woke Millennials, but it’s exactly this novelty factor that makes it work so effectively. Had Tammy been solely an out-and-out Christian pastor this would have been a hard-sell, but it’s the very fact that she maintained her “live and let live” attitude to the bitter end that makes her such a compelling subject for a narrative. It was this stoic liberalism that served as both her making and her undoing, which makes for almost Shakespearean irony smothered with lashings of sequins, hairspray and false lashes.
Jessica Chastain is absolutely resplendent in this gift of a part. An evolution of her scene-stealing Celia Foote from The Help, this fierce southern belle with a heart of gold is stolid in her conviction but centred in her empathy. And with Chastain taking her all the way from teenagehood right until her sixties, we lose the actress deep within the role. Her voice is brimming with melodic cheer and her eyes sparkle with the incandescent joy of a woman fulfilled, albeit also primped, painted and preened too. Joyous, that is, until the inevitable fall that you know has to follow.
Opposite, Andrew Garfield is saccharine sweet, drenched in an honest openness that can only mask a lie. It’s the kind of performance we’ve seen from him before, but he gives solid support in what is clearly the Chastain-show. Cherry Jones is terrifyingly stoic as Tammy’s mother, while a host of character actors pepper the movie as studio bosses, execs and businessmen too.
Chastain obtained the rights to tell Tammy’s story a decade ago, in the same year that she received her first Oscar nomination. It feels somewhat apt that she has finally won the prize for the part she has spent the resulting decade developing. There’s no doubt that this is a film that rests heavily on a remarkable central performance, but it’s certainly colourful and luscious enough that it will live on as a camp classic for years to come. Add its multiple LGBT+ strands to the mix and this is one breathless miasma of outrageous campery. And I, for one, have never seen anything be so very Christian and also so very, very gay!
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Searchlight Pictures.