“The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved. No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings.”
In past thirty years, the famous televangelist, Tammy Faye Bakker, has gone through a rehabilitation of her image, especially in the gay community. A lot of that has to do with her openly talking and accepting gay men during AIDs epidemic on her show, something that would still be unheard of today in the evangelical community. Another reason might be the opulence of Tammy Faye. Her famous makeup, iconic Joan Crawford “eyes,” and high-pitched squeak of a voice are a heightened form of femininity in a way that makes her ripe to become a gay icon. Her status grew with the 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, two directors whose subjects are often gay icons.
It is with this context that brings The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an adaptation biopic of the famous 2000 documentary. The director Michael Showalter, a staple of sketch comedy groups the Slate, has been dutifully directing nice, easygoing dramedies such as The Big Sick and My Name is Doris in the last few years. When it comes to his direction of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I couldn’t quite understand why her story needed to be told.
Told like a standard biopic (it even opens with Tammy Faye getting ready for one final big performance) the film portrays the Tammy Faye story with a pitying reverence. We see Tammy Faye grow up in a religious home, one in which she is ostracized by the community because her mother (played by the always dependable Cherry Jones) is considered a harlot for having Tammy with her first husband. But this is presented as what fueled Tammy’s love of God.
Eventually, an Icarus like class fall which permeates these types of movies begins to take place. At the height of their power, excess of money and materialism by both Bakkers begins to overtake their priorities. Tammy Faye, however, is all but exonerated from any misuse of funds – something that was also a problem with the original documentary. Instead, she is portrayed as being blissfully oblivious to any wrongdoing, choosing to stay silent instead of asking questions.
That is the biggest problem with both the original documentary and Showalter’s direction. It is too reverential to Tammy Faye’s story and confuses any messages or themes that a viewer might come away with. Showalter does not have the ability to be a satirist like Scorsese did with Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Nor does the film ever give reason for us to empathize with Tammy Faye’s choices. Any criticisms of American evangelicals or the cult of celebrity seems hollow and well-trodden. This is all done much better on HBO’s woefully under-seen The Righteous Gemstones, a satire with a more biting edge that does not have to pay deference to a cult icon.
If this movie offers anything, it is a vehicle for Jessica Chastain to get an Oscar nomination. Her performance as Tammy Faye Bakker is not embarrassing but is the type of unrestrained performance that is fodder come Oscar time. She, like the real-life Tammy Faye is going to garner a lot of attention for her showiness but leans too heavily on makeup and prosthetics.
Only towards the end was there a sense that the filmmakers had any grasp on why this story is worth telling. But, by then it is too little too late.
There are some serious holes in my Best Picture and Best Director filmographies and I was given the idea to go through and watch them. I have seen most of the post 2010 Best Picture winners but I even have holes there. The first Best Picture winner in order from newest to oldest that I had not seen was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the Best Director winner was a film I had seen many times before, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.
The 2014 Oscar race (for films released in 2013) is the first awards season I remember. I had seen Gravity in IMAX and continually heard about a film called 12 Years a Slave. Cut to awards night and I still had not seen 12 Years a Slave, but I knew Gravity had continually stayed in the conversation. I was electric that night, having seen the film I loved win so many awards. After Cuarón’s win for Best Director I was expecting to hear Gravity’s name called out when they announced Best Picture. Alas, that was not the case, 12 Years a Slave took home the award.
Almost 8 years after these 2 films have been released I finally saw 12 Years a Slave and revisited Gravity. Suffice to say as the years have passed, other films nominated that year have gotten more love and attention within the film community. Her and The Wolf of Wall Street have stayed relevant more than any other Best Picture nominee from that year. Whereas these 2 films have been mostly forgotten. They both struck the zeitgeist when they were released, but have fizzled out over the years. For myself I remember Gravity’s win for Best Director more than the film itself, even after revisiting it.
12 Years a Slave packs a lot of punch, and has really powerful moments, however it is not nearly as nuanced as the film wishes it was, which is really disappointing after all the hype I’d heard about this film. Hindsight is 20/20 and with 12 Years a Slave and Gravity both having been mostly forgotten proves that the Oscars got it wrong that year. My personal wins would be Best Director for Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street, and Best Picture for Her.
Before there was The Irishman, there was Jacques Becker‘s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, an impeccably crafted crime film from 1954, in which French acting legend Jean Gabin plays a worn out gangster in the twilight moments of his career. After his long-time friend and partner is kidnapped by rivals who want his recently acquired loot, Gabin’s cool, collected, and finely dressed Max is forced to put off retirement just a little bit longer, and potentially choose between saving his pal and his nest egg.
Despite their differences in scope, the influence of Becker’s film on Scorcese’s latest crime saga is loud and clear. Though Gabin was twenty years or so younger than De Niro at the time of their respective performances, they share a similar weariness in how they carry and express themselves, and not only that, but their characters also obviously recall one another: Gabin’s Max and De Niro’s Frank are aging gangsters whose loyalty to a friend is tested, and whose looking back on their lives adds a strain of regret to their film’s emotional undercurrents. A sense of late life melancholy is perhaps clearest in the scene where prior to his kidnapping, Max’s friend Riton stays the night at Max’s apartment, and the two are shown in their pajamas getting ready for bed (which immediately recalls the scene in The Irishman where Hoffa and Sheeran spend a night at a hotel together). Riton, whose young lover (Jeanne Moreau in the femme fatale role) has just taken up with another man closer to her own age, examines himself in the bathroom mirror, and gently pushes at the sides of his eyes, as if he’s trying to remember the smoothness of his younger skin.
Connections aside, this film stands firmly on its own two feet. Becker makes the mundane as compelling as the crackling action in which the film crescendos, masterfully wielding silence and musical cues (Max’s song is a wistful harmonica melody) in tandem with the visual grammar of film noir. The climax is an airtight roadside face-off that ends in gunfire, grenades exploding, and a car chase, but nearly everything before it, from scenes of gangsters lounging at their exclusive restaurant hang-out to Max and Riton simply sharing wine and bread, are just as slick and satisfying.
On Episode 74 of the Podcast Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: You Should Have Left & Lovecraft Country. Followed by the Feature Films: Shirley, The King of Staten Island, and Young Ahmed in their lead up to the Top 10 of the year so far Episode.
The King of Staten Island is currently available to rent from multiple sources.
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