Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Written by Patrick Hao

45/100

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.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

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.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye Trailer

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently screening in limited release and was feature at the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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The Gateway

Written by Patrick Hao

28/100

Shea Whigham has the type of face that is able to give the whole backstory of his character. That’s why he has been a stalwart character actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, Wolf of Wall Street, and Take Shelter. It’s a wonder why it took so long for Whigham to lead an indie crime film – hell, John Hawkes has led several at this point. The Gateway finally gives Whigham a chance to lead a film, although it does not match the sturdiness of Whigham’s performance.

The film, the second feature from commercial and music video director Michele Civetta, is stuck between a gritty sociopolitical character study and a pulp neo-noir destined to be a spontaneous movie choice by “that” uncle during the holidays. The Gateway, unfortunately, does neither especially well. On the character end, Whigham plays Parker Jode, an ex-fighter turn social worker, who takes an interest in helping a young girl, Ashley (Taegen Burns), and her troubled mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) way beyond his duties as a social bureaucrat. Parker Jode is the classic reserved tough guy – one who feels more than he says. Civetta uses all of Whigham’s weathered wrinkles to his advantage in that regard.

On the crime end, Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) is released from prison. He is a triple whammy of a drunk, cheat, and abuser who continues to commit robberies at the behest of local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo). When an armed robbery turns violent, Mike decides to stash heroin into his unwitting daughter’s bag, setting the movie into action. Oh yeah, strong supporting characters playing their typecasts appear throughout from Taryn Manning (as a barfly of course), Mark Boone Junior (as a drug-dealing bartender of course), Keith David (as a Keith David type of course), and Bruce Dern (as a doddering cursing Vietnam vet, trying to atone for his sins as the father of Parker Jode of course).

The Gateway is exactly the type of movie you expect from the title, the poster, and the cast. None of it is especially convincing except for Wigham who is trying his darndest to make his world-weary character enough to carry the film. Civetta is not devoid of style. His influences are clear. The film starts out with neon hues like a second-rate Michael Mann and quickly devolves into straight to Redbox over lit tones.

It would have been better if the film decided to lean into its pulpier proclivities. Rather, Civetta and his screenplay written with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas leans into the hard times social message clichés. None of it is particularly convincing or inspiring. It doesn’t help that Olivia Munn and Zach Avery give stilted performances. It’s the chicken or the egg situation – was it the performances or the script that is wooden. The answer is probably a bit of both. Its hard to be too hard on a film like The Gateway. Its aspirations seem minimal, with its only ambitions being a calling card to whomever gets a break from this small film. It does not help the case of Shea Whigham, “Leading Man,” because even as the lead, the film is straining to focus on someone else.

The Gateway Trailer

The Gateway is available in select theaters and on VOD. Available on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.