Famous actors deliver their best performances when they completely disappear into their characters. I don’t mean those times when actors undergo body transformations for roles (Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, Christian Bale in The Machinist, etc.), although that’s a separate type of commitment. If you think about actors like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, it’s nearly impossible to forget who they are when you watch one of their movies. Pitt has had better success in that attempt than Cruise. Consider the evolution from start to finish of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly or Tom Hanks in Cast Away. You easily buy into the transformation because of a variety of factors, including both makeup and hair (special effects or conventional) and convincing acting. Jessica Chastain takes a similar journey in her latest drama. The Eyes of Tammy Faye keeps all (other) eyes on Chastain as she inhabits the controversial first lady of televangelism.
Director Michael Showalter (The Lovebirds and The Big Sick) and writer Abe Sylvia (writer/director of Dirty Girl) take the unusual and somewhat rare approach of dramatizing a documentary of the same name. Partly a biopic and partly a baring of the soul, this film spans decades in the life of Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) and her relationship with Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). With history and a documentary as guides, the story details both the rise and fall of the Bakkers and their popular TV show The PTL Club. Although the couple shares many of the events in the movie, it takes the perspective — thus, the other meaning of the eyes of the title — of Tammy, especially with her mother Rachel Grover (Cherry Jones) present at key moments to both encourage and chastise Tammy for her actions. Having seen the 2000 documentary from directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato over 20 years ago, I found the material to be familiar yet still compelling as if you tried two pies of the same flavor made by different bakers.
The performances make the movie, and I’m not sure that I would be as complimentary with different actors in the same roles using the same script. I’m certain that Chastain will make the short list of acclaimed actresses in awards season. The film opens on a scene later in life where Tammy comments that her lip lines, eyebrows and eye lines are all permanent. The story jumps back to Tammy as a little girl (the outstanding Chandler Head) before introducing Chastain as the adult Tammy and tweaking her appearance over time as Michael Jackson did to mark incredible changes if you merely look at the start and end points. During the running time, you see less Jessica and more Tammy until Jessica dissolves completely and there’s only Tammy. Physical transformation aside, Chastain also sings, does puppet voices and perfects Tammy’s distinct accent that, this many years later, reminds me a little of Sarah Palin in diction and tone.
You usually can’t hang an entire movie on one performer’s shoulders without support from the other actors. Garfield counters Chastain’s work with his Jim Bakker. Jim was kind of a square and also a sneaky businessman, so his portrayer needed to be just as strong as Tammy’s. Garfield oozes both smarm and genuine concern for Tammy and their followers, and perhaps his best scenes appear later in the movie as Jim’s misdeeds lead to a downfall and a blowout fight with Tammy. Jones steals every scene with her deadpan humor and sarcasm just as Allison Janney did as a mother to another controversial woman in I, Tonya. Jones has honed her craft in theaters as well as films and television, and it’s a shame that there isn’t more room for her character’s scenes. Filmmakers could create another movie on Jerry Falwell and his involvement with the Bakkers and televangelism. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Falwell in just a few scenes to the point where they almost waste his talent on this character.
As I alluded before, this film and its sister documentary have a special relationship in the history of motion pictures. In most cases, the documentaries rank as superior to the dramas or fictional titles based on or adapted from the docs. I did some research, and you could write a college thesis in film school on such titles. The Walk tried to outdo the award-winning Man on Wire, but in all ways, the latter takes the prize with its mixture of history, heist film and tension. Grey Gardens similarly uses the same title for both movies, but they each (along with a stage play) have their supporters. Like The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Milk and Sean Penn’s award-winning performance outshine The Times of Harvey Milk. Both versions of the character’s story are required viewing. Finally, Lords of Dogtown fails to capture your interest as much as the groundbreaking documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys in its examination of skateboarding and its culture.
As with other period films, the sets, costumes, wigs and makeup play a big part in the illusion of the trip through time accompanying the characters. It’s almost novel for me as someone who grew up with a rotary phone to see someone using one in a movie. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the props and set design that appear to be accurate on a first viewing. The costumes define the decades as well, and Jim’s powder-blue suit and Tammy’s white outfit with fur and hat stand out. The costumer delved into what would be in a thrift shop even 30 years ago for outfits that made me laugh, especially Tammy’s disco look. With makeup and hair such a huge part of Tammy’s persona, the artists in these areas had to get them exactly right. At the start, Chastain has little more than beauty makeup, but by the end, you could call Tammy’s choices “ugly makeup” that shows her decline. Jim was known for his helmet hair, and Garfield wears that look here, as do many of the male characters. After all, hair was bigger in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I’ll be interested to see if Chastain gets edged out from one deserved award or another because there’s a lot of time between now and the end of the year when the contenders’ films are released. In most movies that focus on controversial characters, people split on their feelings about the subjects. With both filmed versions of Tammy’s story, Tammy comes out as a hero instead of a villain. Her bubbly personality and deliberate speech patterns draw you in as they did millions of television viewers and donors. I can only take so much of Tammy — real or reimagined — and a testament to the filmmakers is that The Eyes of Tammy Faye never pushed me to the point of tuning out.