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FILM REVIEW: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ ushers in Oscar season

The film is "a dramatic portrait of a complicated woman whose life choices we can all second guess, but whose core humanity deserves another look."

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” has a knowing look: Oscar season is upon us, which is the most beautiful time of the year. I recently had the pleasure of catching this matinee with the whole theater to myself — talk about social distancing. You can see the film yourself this week at Images Cinema in Williamstown, Regal at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough, or The Moviehouse in Millerton, New York.

Now then, a fun fact from the film. Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) was addicted to Diet Coke. My first thought was: perhaps we as a nation should probably pay more attention to fake sugar-cravers with preachy predilections … just an idea.

My second thought: in the pantheon of people with double-barreled names, some are so well known they practically become mononymous. Think Norma Jean, Peggy Sue, Billy Bob. And many of the double named aren’t even from the South, which brings us back to Tammy Faye.

Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Image courtesy Searchlight Pictures

In the film’s opening scene, close-ups of our lead character’s eyes are notable for what they reflect — vanity lights. As the story progresses, the attentive moviegoer recognizes other items in her eyes, like a pupillary Rorschach test. At the same time, Tammy Faye begins to see things others choose to ignore. Chief among them is her well-documented embrace of gay men, especially those with HIV. This is no small feat, given the virulent strain of homophobia so prevalent during the AIDS crisis.

In another scene, Tammy Faye asks the fire and brimstone Reverend Jerry Falwell a simple question: “Who are we fighting?” Falwell’s stern response — “The liberal agenda, the feminist agenda, the homosexual agenda” — made me laugh out loud. And when you laugh in a theater with no one else around, a humorous moment seems that much sillier.

And yet, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is not a straight-up comedy; it’s not a comedy at all. It’s a dramatic portrait of a complicated woman whose life choices we can all second guess, but whose core humanity deserves another look.

With Jessica Chastain in the lead role, Andrew Garfield playing Jim Bakker, the incomparable Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s mother, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Falwell, the movie’s star power is an old recipe for Oscar nominations. So are prosthetics, wigs, and heavy makeup: check, check, check.

It’s too early for me to predict whether this movie will garner any Academy Awards, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t receive some nominations. It’s certainly worth seeing, and even has the feel of a Snellen eye chart: as you watch Tammy Faye’s people-pleasing personality evolve, it’s hard to miss her imagining a different vision for herself.

With any luck, the film will make its audience imagine different visions, too. The film offers a wholesale repudiation of the prosperity gospel, false prophets, and the current Republican death cult. For these reasons alone, it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

Of course, Tammy Faye banished many of her own demons in her lifetime. I pray “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” will help the nation dispel one more.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.