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 ► The Eyes of Tammy Faye is in UK cinemas now and is available to stream on Disney+ and Apple TV

Early on in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, nine-year-old Tammy Faye hits on something. She’s the black sheep of her devout Minnesota family, on the one hand chastised for an incipient interest in glamour, on the other barred from attending the Pentecostal church where her mother Rachel plays piano, because she’s a living reminder of Rachel’s divorce and remarriage.

Nevertheless, Tammy Faye sneaks into a service, drinks from the chalice and collapses to the ground, writhing and speaking in tongues, to delighted acclaim. Here, it seems, is a lesson for life in how the charismatic, expressive display of wide-eyed devotion might also serve as a vehicle to access attention, belonging and status. As throughout this broadly sympathetic, not-quite-hagiographic film, no firm view is offered on whether this convenient alignment between piety and self-interest is best understood as a function of naivety or calculation, or a dissonant jumble of the two.

The hyperglamorous and emotive complement to her more buttoned-up husband Jim, Tammy Faye Bakker was an iconic – and iconically made-up – face of the American televangelist movement of the 1970s and 80s. The Bakkers’ upbeat, entertaining and inclusive-ish mode endeared them to many, which helped their unending appeals for contributions to fund their charitable works, grandiose development schemes and, as it turned out, lavish lifestyle. Their apparent relative softness also left them vulnerable to the predations of more rapaciously conservative televangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, both early on in the Bakkers’ career and at the time of their downfall, which involved Jim’s investigation and conviction for fraud and the couple’s widely aired infidelities and divorce.

A leading figure in the Reaganite religious right, Tammy Faye was also atypical of that culture in certain ways. She was a woman who asserted her own professional agency, not to mention her spectacular and emotional femininity, and she went out on a limb to engage sympathetically with groups demonised by others in the movement, including people with Aids and ‘unwed’ mothers. Throw in her public struggles with prescription drug addiction, marital strife and cancer and it’s unsurprising that she emerged as a gay icon. This status was cemented by the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, narrated by RuPaul and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who went on to produce RuPaul’s Drag Race as well as this feature – broadly adapted from the documentary by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, 2017).

Following the overall contours of the documentary, while introducing some notable shifts in emphasis, the feature presents a gripping if uneven blend of histrionic and the banal. Rooted in attention-grabbing central performances by Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, it provides a dizzying account of a long, strange trip that ultimately leaves us on the outside looking in.

It’s impressive as a recreation of the Bakkers’ life less ordinary, capturing the crescendos of chintz and mascara that marked their ascent. Fans of the documentary will recognise painstakingly reproduced on-air vignettes, including Tammy Faye’s surreal interaction with a boat while under the influence and extraordinary interviews the couple gave as their world came crashing down.

 Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
© Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Chastain and Garfield endearingly convey the young Bakkers’ chipmunk charm, rapport and belief that “God doesn’t want us to be poor”. As things change, he gets more judgemental and self-pitying while her brand of seemingly guileless excess grows more outré. Tammy Faye’s journey is one of maquillage as much as anything, her naturalistic youthful look moving through bold, high-80s glam to something akin to kabuki, tattooed liplines and all.

Chastain potently anchors the film, belting out devotional songs with rapturous zeal and embodying a figure of self-determination and self-delusion, without quite capturing the earthy twinkle of the real Tammy Faye’s weird charisma. The feature isn’t shy about sexual wants and needs but Chastain remains rather ethereal, even infantilised; where the documentary emphasised Tammy Faye’s flirtatious relationship with her second husband, equivalent room here is given instead to her troubled bond with her mother (played with flinty reserve by Cherry Jones).

A comeback performance at a religious university, seen in the documentary as a site of surprisingly unconditional reassurance for a self-fashioned woman, emerges in the feature as an echo of nine-year-old Tammy Faye, back in church, trying to win another welcome through charismatic self-display. We might have seen a little more growth, and some accountability.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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