By John H. Foote
Accolades came fast for Jessica Chastain, stardom did not.
The beautiful red headed graduate of Julliard struggled for several years before finally landing a plum role in Al Pacino’s filmed adaptation of Salome (2009) as the dancing vixen who demands the head of John the Baptist. She had previously been seen in Jolene (2008) a sexy, silly romp through the South with Chastain in various stages of undress but still giving a fine performance.
She officially broke through with The Help (2011) and was Oscar nominated for her performance as kindly Cecilia Foote, the southern belle ostracized from the group of racist housewives who control the social events in town. Cecilia does not have a racist bone in her body and adores her new maid Millie, treating her as an equal every day she is with her. Giggly, hyper, happy, Chastain was superb in the film, as was the rest of the gifted cast and attention finally fell on her.
She followed The Help with a film and performance that could not have been more different, icy Mya, the CIA operative who finds Osama Bin Laden hidden in a home in plain sight in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Tough, fearless, not even the torture of a man in custody bothers her and she gets tired of waiting for the officials at the CIA advising the President to attack Bin Laden. At her furious insistence they finally do, and kill him, just as she said they would. The film received absolute rave reviews, and the actress was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress, winning best Actress awards such as the Golden Globe, the Broadcast Film Critics’ Awards Best Actress Award, a Screen Actors Guild nomination and Best Actress awards from the Chicago Film Critics and the National Board of review. Her laser focused intensity as Maya absolutely deserved the Academy Award she did not win.
Further brilliance in films such as Miss Sloane (2016), Molly’s Game (2017), Woman Walks Ahead (2017), It – Chapter Two (2018) and Ava (2020) should have earned her more awards talk but I am sure she will get her share as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
An honest, compelling look at the rise of Jim Baker and Tammy Faye Bakker, husband and wife evangelists who rose and fell with equal headlines, she shares the screen with Andrew Garfield, surprising effective as Jim Baker. I say surprisingly only because I am not sold on Garfield as a dramatic actor just yet, he is good, but is he great? Maybe. This is looking like a breakthrough year for the actor.
Chastain? No question, she is an actress for the ages, one of the finest working in modern film right now. She is Meryl Streep great, Marlon Brando great so we can expect much, much more from the actress.
What Tammy Faye was never given credit for was her deep-rooted humanity. She was an advocate for support to AIDS victims long before anyone else stepped up, bringing patients of the terrible disease, homosexuals or not, onto the TV show and into the public spotlight. I think, far more than Jim Bakker, Tammy had a purity about her and genuinely cared for the work they were doing. Oh she liked the money, the houses, the cars, the clothes, who wouldn’t? But there was something real about here that there never was with Jim Bakker.
As The PTL Network grew in fame and the money came pouring in, she suspected something was wrong, but could never put her finger on it. She did relish the spotlight, and this allowed her she reasoned to do a great deal of good. It all came crashing down when revelations came that Jessica Hahn, a young woman had been paid off to keep silent about rape accusations towards Jim. From there it all fell so quickly, and what they had worked tirelessly to build was like a house of cards, falling fast and without mercy. Jim was ruined, and TV saw to it we saw many shots of Tammy Faye, weeping openly at what was happening to them, and sadly she became a caricature in the news.
As portrayed by Chastain, Tammy Faye was a born entertainer and when she and Jim Bakker hooked up after she left home, they were seemingly made for one another. He could preach with the best of them, whipping his crowds into a money giving frenzy, and Tammy Faye loved the spotlight he provided her to sing. Their TV show, with puppets became a huge hit locally, and they founded The PTL Network (Praise the Lord) which was soon raking in millions upon millions of dollars. The big houses, the cars, the clothes, were all terrific perks for both of them, but she often questioned Jim if they were doing anything underhanded.
Of course he was. Was she aware of it? I honestly do not believe so, because she stood by him through the trial and only after he was convicted did she divorce him.
Most of what today’s generation knows about Tammy Faye Bakker is from the documentary of the same name, the books and the many famous and infamous photographs of Tammy Faye with the false eyelashes, the garish almost neon make-up and the near hysteria when she spoke.
Chastain goes deep into the soul of the character and captures what was broken with Tammy Faye. The actress knows she is portraying a caricature, but she tunnels deep inside her and brings to the audience her heart and soul. It is the kind of performance that wins Academy Awards and Chastain jumps into the race with this electrifying piece of acting. He is sensational, her character almost humming to a different energy than anyone else in the film, celebrating the glory of God. There is no doubt Tammy Faye always marched to her own drummer and often made waves for her husband within the ministry, but she did not care. Could it be that she was truly about the people??
Andrew Garfield plays Jim Bakker like a used car salesman with a gift for selling. There is a sleaze just under the surface that we are surprised Tammy Faye missed, but when in love how often do we miss the obvious? Garfield is outstanding in the film, though very much in the shadow of Chastain.
It is a powerful film, deeply authentic I believe, and told with a frank honesty and raw power, but with comedy too. Did people really take them seriously? They did and when they fell from grace, their audiences were devastated.
Count on Miss Chastain being Oscar bound. She is a force of nature in the film, altering her voice and looks for the part, but those watchful eyes see all, until they do not.
I wonder if people ever considered if Tammy Faye was real, if she was in the world of religion for the right reasons, if her helping AIDS victims was done for the right reasons, how great was her humiliation when she was betrayed by Jim and they fell, together?
Chastain captures everything about the character and stroked the soul with her performance. I ached for her.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.