When a fictionalized retelling of well-known real-life events bears the exact same title as a previous documentary about those events, it’s a tipoff that the movie to come might be hard pressed to tell an original story. The Eyes of Tammy Faye was an acclaimed 2000 documentary about the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, married televangelists who created a Christian talk-show empire in the 1970s and ’80s and were brought down in the early ’90s by a string of financial and sexual scandals. The new feature film of the same name, scripted by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), stars Jessica Chastain as the terminally moist-eyed Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as her slippery, sanctimonious husband.
The documentary, made while Tammy Faye was still alive and with her sometimes embarrassingly eager participation, had a cheeky, campy affection for its subject, complete with voice-over narration by a pre–Drag Race RuPaul. The dramatized version, while lushly designed and winningly well-acted, might be used in a screenwriting class as a template for biopic “don’t”s. From the opening titles—an info-dump montage of vintage news clips and headlines—to the final credits, which appear over side-by-side photos of the real-life subjects and the actors playing them, The Eyes of Tammy Faye checks off every box.
There are flashbacks to traumatic events in the protagonist’s childhood and hectic montages of drink swilling and pill swallowing set to incongruously upbeat songs. There are more montages of the up-and-coming stars’ increasingly lavish and tacky real-estate acquisitions: a white-carpeted lakeside mansion, a Christian amusement park. It’s a wonder no one takes a saw to their couch in the midst of a self-destructive bender, Dewey Cox–style.
In a feature especially common to the recent biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye also makes heavy use of facial prosthetics, padded suits, and age makeup. In the era of Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice, when a combination of high-end makeup technology, digital effects, and many actors’ virtually unlimited willingness to transform themselves makes it possible for anyone to look like anyone else, how you feel about this trend may determine your reaction to a movie like The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Jessica Chastain, one of the most beautiful movie stars currently living (I sat a few rows away from her once at a post-screening Q&A, and her skin, so help me, was opalescent), would seem an odd choice to play Tammy Faye Bakker. Bakker was not an unattractive woman beneath the thick layers of makeup that were her trademark, but she presented herself in an unsettlingly Gorgon-like way, with mascara as thick as tarantula legs, her hair teased out in serpentine curls, and stiff, gaudy, hyperfeminine outfits…