After Douglas Sirk but before reality TV, there was bird-voiced televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, the bighearted, spotlight-seeking American success story laid low by her misplaced love for a crooked husband, blind trust in schemers, and old-fashioned greed. Had Jim Bakker not come along to hustle their young marriage into a cash cow of a ministry, one could see the cheery, hard-working, socially liberal Tammy Faye leading a perfectly flush life entertaining the adoring faithful, leaving only her cosmetic boldness as a source of tabloid derision. (Or was it a facial armor that could only arise from being married to Bakker?)
Yet scandal did come for Tammy Faye, after which queer art swooped to rescue her with the 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. A sympathetic case of gay adoption that teased as only family could, it also stressed where redemption and pity was warranted for so melodramatic a life. (Bakker was famously LGBTQ-friendly.)
Now comes a years-spanning film inspired by the documentary, also called “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” with Jessica Chastain memorably suiting up for service and, we can safely speculate, hope for the Oscar talk that comes with a showy role requiring physical transformation and a delicate balance between what people know and what they might not.
As directed by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) and penned by Abe Sylvia, with Andrew Garfield taking on Jim Bakker, this performed version of the couple’s spectacular rise and fall in televised religion, like the doc, also walks a fine line between Christian-culture comedy and woman-centric drama. That blend of tones is not always smoothly handled, but there’s enough heart in its express train of ambition, flaws and fallout to allow its leading lady wide berth for a wonderfully committed, soulful, even sexual turn admirably devoid of caricature.
While costume designer Mitchell Travers (“In the Heights”) and hair-makeup stylist Linda Dowds expertly provide the trademark shell of gaudiness, Chastain — impressively modulating her portrayal from wide-eyed adolescence to scarred middle age — finds the friendly, vulnerable believer-against-all-odds underneath.
After an opening news-montage recap of the Bakkers’ undoing — and a later-years close-up of those permanently-lined eyes as Chastain tells an unseen makeup artist, “This is who I really am” — the roots of Bakker’s feeling-forward brand of Christianity are addressed in a childhood sequence from the early 1950s with a reliably severe Cherry Jones as her judgmental Pentecostal mother, and young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head, “Fosse/Verdon”) turning a shadow puppet into an emotional outlet.
It’s 1960 when Chastain takes over, flirting from the pew with fellow Bible College attendee Jim Bakker (in a sweater that kicks off the movie’s gallery of regrettable outerwear) as he preaches a gospel of prosperity-not-poverty. His drive and her performance charisma win them a puppet ministry for kids with burgeoning Christian television figure Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), but it’s not until they start “The PTL Club” that the Bakkers’ vision of glitzy, variety/talk-show televangelism turns them into a pioneering satellite network force.
While camera-ready do-gooder Tammy Faye is abuzz with reaching the needy everywhere — even conducting a moving, empathetic on-air interview with an openly gay minister with AIDS (Randy Havens, “Stranger Things”) — Jim is intensely focused on donations, luxury and empire-building with accommodating real estate developer Roe Messner (Sam Jaeger, “The Handmaid’s Tale”). Bakker’s financial methods draw the scrutiny of reporters, but his massive audience attracts the cunning attention of ultra-conservative firebrand Jerry Falwell (an all-business Vincent D’Onofrio), introduced via freeze frame and text as if he were a mobster in something called “God-fellas.”
The Scorsese vibes apply to “Eyes,” not unfavorably with regards to pacing and punch, but mostly as an under-the-hood portrait of corruption, hypocrisy and emotional cruelty in a partnership that became a bad business. (In its mix of tabloid and tragedy, “I, Tonya” is probably a more accurate precursor.)
Garfield is queasily effective with Bakker’s boyishly manipulative use of his wife’s guilelessness and popularity as a vehicle for wealth, while ignoring the fissures that begin taking their toll on Tammy Faye. She turns toward the attentive glow of a handsome music producer (country singer Mark Wystrach), but the shame from that leads to a dependence on Ativan that, in a memorable scene — like many, re-enacted from the documentary’s archival treasure trove — that has Tammy Faye losing focus on the air.
Visually, Showalter is more steady hand than stylist behind a camera, but the trappings of period soundstages and eccentric ‘70s-‘80s opulence in Laura Fox’s set designs are wonderfully evocative, and their absence as the movie follows Tammy Faye into post-scandal life is palpable. You miss them for her.
What “Eyes” leaves out won’t matter to the unfamiliar (Jessica Hahn is only referred to, not portrayed), but considering just how much has been packed into its two-hours-and-change, it’s enough to render its subject in all her devotions and demons. To that end, where the filmmakers choose to leave the down-but-never-out Tammy Faye — on a stage, but maybe not alone — is a deftly compassionate one, with a fitting message of staying true to yourself, however you’ve been painted.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” opens in US theaters Sept. 17.