In the biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jessica Chastain plays the titular evangelist who, along with her husband Jim Bakker, preached the gospel to millions of households via satellite television, before fading away in financial fraud. The female preacher is an unusual but striking figure in cinema, embodying Hollywood’s attitudes towards both organized religion and working women.

In The Miracle Woman (1931), Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) takes to evangelism as a means of avenging her father, who dies of heartbreak after the church board replaces him with a younger pastor. In the film’s opening scene, she rages at the complicity of the congregation and drives them out of the church: “You’re thieves, killers, adulterers, blasphemers and liars six days a week, and on the seventh day you’re hypocrites!”

Director Frank Capra is often associated with sentimentalism, but there is a strong cynical streak that courses through his work. Florence’s business of saving souls is portrayed like a circus, complete with designated freaks and a pack of lions. The employees of the ‘company’ are party animals, and her manager doesn’t mind snuffing out a dissident or forcing himself on Florence.

The Miracle Woman was made at a time when the talkies were increasingly populated by wisecracking city girls. Stanwyck herself represents the quintessential screen cynic, wise in the warped ways of the world, hardened to its injustices. Her Florence is an A-rate con woman, but she is shown as someone with an uncorrupted core. Having abandoned her father’s ideals, she feels guilty and wants to come clean. She redeems herself in a climactic sequence — an inversion of the opening — where she pleads with a gathering of churchgoers to keep faith and not to abandon a burning tabernacle.

The ending of Capra’s film comes from Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry (1927), which was adapted by Hollywood’s in-house liberal Richard Brooks into a 1960 movie of the same name. The protagonist of the film is Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster), a smooth-talking city slicker who starts as a petty salesman and goes on to become a zealous crusader for God. But in some ways, Elmer Gantry is the story of Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a small-town revivalist preacher who dreams of founding her own church one day.

When we first see Sister Sharon, she is dressed like a milkmaid — one among the commoners — and distances herself from the “stodgy old ministers discussing hell and damnation.” Her spiel is successful, but Gantry, who wiggles her way into her good books, has bigger plans for her. Eventually they form a tandem: he puts the fear of Hell into people while she promises them Heaven. Gantry’s increasing influence and hypnotic power is reflected in Sharon’s bewitched, frightened eyes. Caught between the old school revivalists, who still want to it to be a rural movement, and the entrepreneurial churches of the city, Sharon’s dilemma is the dramatic focus of the film.

Elmer Gantry is a caustic work typical of post-studio era Hollywood. It is hard to read Lancaster’s Gantry, who can talk eloquently about the healing power of faith, but also quote from the scriptures themselves to repudiate religion as childish. Lefferts, a skeptical journalist (Arthur Kennedy), stands in for the audience, but the film spares Sharon its cold treatment. While she too is touched by Gantry’s ambitions, her faith remains untainted, so much so that it turns out to be an expression of naivety by the film’s end. She is the New Testament to Gantry’s Old Testament, preaching love and persuading even the hardboiled Lefferts to take a knee for Jesus.

Like Sharon’s, Tammy Faye’s vision of God isn’t retributive. As a child, she grows up in a fundamentalist household where makeup is sin and mortification the only path to grace. In reaction to this punishing puritanism, Tammy projects a positive piety predicated on love for all of God’s creatures. This is what connects her to her husband-to-be, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who advocates enjoying earthly pleasures at a trial sermon in their seminary.

Tammy’s unconditional love also means that she is blind to social codes and taboos that prescribe behaviour. In the film’s view, if Tammy’s actions seem to us to be models of liberal acceptance — disregarding gender segregation at parties, plugging penile pumps or inviting HIV patients on her show — it is only the by-product of her undifferentiated view of human life. “I do my best to maintain a blameless conscience before God and before men,” she tells her professor. Love of God and love of men are for her not just inextricable, but the same. That is why the medium of television exerts such a primal attraction: if TV broadcast offers millions of attentive eyes for Jim, it translates to millions of receptive ears for Tammy to spread the Good Word.

Jessica Chastain’s portrayal is challenging to pull off as well as to evaluate since it is a performance of a performance. Tammy is a superficial woman in the etymological sense of the word. All her emotions show instantly on her face and body. She nods in fervent agreement to Jim’s declarations at his trial sermon. Her professor disapproves of her makeup and compares her to a harlot, and Tammy scowls so bluntly in response that it comes across like sarcasm. “I have no secrets,” she tells Jim, “What you see is all there is of me, I don’t pretend to be something I’m not.”

This transparency and guilelessness are suspect at first: it is hard to imagine that she isn’t hiding something beneath this unambiguous exterior. But Tammy’s surface emotionality only serves to conceal a void. Chastain’s performance turns around the idea that the real Tammy Faye was a creature of the media and a purely external being. The film ascribes this hollowing-out of Tammy’s inner world to parental neglect in her childhood. When young Tammy sulks at the dinner table for not being allowed inside the church, her mother asks her to “stop performing.” To compensate for this maternal indifference, the girl creates an imaginary friend that would later become one of the puppets used on her TV show.

Cinema being an art of surfaces, it is impossible without context to tell performance from mental illness. Or from miracles for that matter. When little Tammy enters the church against her mother’s wishes, she is gripped by religious rapture and falls to the ground spouting arcane exhortations. We can’t quite say if it is really spiritual transport that we are witnessing or a devious act by the girl to get back at her mother.

If the film pathologizes her spirituality, it doesn’t question Tammy’s faith. Like Benedetta (2021), which premiered a few months earlier, The Eyes of Tammy Faye entertains the possibility that its protagonist completely believes in what she claims, even though there is the constant doubt that she may be a charlatan. Practically everything Tammy says is prefaced by a “God tells me to,” but viewers need not believe her proclamations; they only need to believe that she believes in them. By the end, despite Tammy’s dyed hair, tattooed lips and flamboyant eyelashes, despite Chastain’s deforming prosthetics and flashy tics, Tammy registers as an authentic character. This is perhaps the film’s success.

 

[First published in News9]

Frozen in Hate

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 392; 21 July 1957.

The Last Hunt

We know that almost all Westerns are of great topical interest. The journey back in time gets the viewer interested in political theses and it gives progressive filmmakers a greater latitude in establishing their ideas.

The Last Hunt, like certain other films by director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value) attacks racism: it tells us the struggle of two buffalo hunters, who have directly contradictory ideas about their professions, at the turn of last century. Charlie kills for the pleasure of killing; Sandy needs money and is repulsed by the massacre he commits. This contrast explains the attitude of the two heroes towards their fellowmen. Charlie has a profound contempt for Indians, whom he kills every time he has the chance, and for humanity in general. Disgusted, Sandy leaves, taking with him the squaw who refused Charlie’s animal love. The last hunt is not to be, since Charlie, on watch outside Sandy’s refuge one winter night, dies in the cold. This statue of ice from the film’s last images – the evil eye, revolver in hand – resumes in a striking way the sterility, impotence and the ridiculousness of ultimately self-destructive, racist hate.

The intelligence of Brooks’ scenario lies in the fact that it explains the conflicts of a racial order through psychological motifs, through the taste for violence: killing Indians or massacring buffaloes helps satisfy one’s unhealthy needs without being pursued by justice. In contrast to literature, like that of a number of directors from across the Atlantic (Losey’s The Lawless, Biberman’s Salt of the Earth), it refuses pure and simple racism and relates it to the vagaries of individual conscience with great objectivity.

However, the film takes into account only one aspect of the problem, whereas the transposition should have allowed it broach more burning topics without fear of repercussions: if racial prejudice still exists in the United States, it’s to be explained first of all by a certain intellectual movement, typically of academic origin and completely alien to the desire for violence. Discrimination today affects Whites too, who are now victims of Blacks or, especially, dissident Whites, as much as it does Blacks.

Richard Brooks’ well-known honesty, so far rewarded, finds its limits here and the mise en scène affirms both the high and low points of the script. The Last Hunt is a curious Western, extremely slow and barely commercial. Brooks substitutes for the application and inventive sobriety of his previous films a somewhat belaboured sobriety. And there’s no contradiction between these two propositions: it’s a question of placing the characters within a framework that eliminates elements foreign to the psychology and the intentions of the auteur, particularly grand spectacle, fights and situation scenes. But if this kind of intellectual cinema is new and more probing than in the rare films that inaugurated it, is it desirable? Does it indicate progress? It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the anti-racist plea would’ve found a greater force in the exploitation of genre conventions than in this rather literary style, which instils – deliberately, I believe – sadness, boredom, barrenness through a sluggish narrative, perpetually dark colour palette and uncertain direction of actors.

These comments don’t stem from a misplaced sense of severity. The suspension of the mise en scène can be explained by the orientation of the script: the film describes beings in flight, real bodies without soul, and their blood-tainted existence. One must recall the splendid final image in this regard, which justifies the film’s style to the letter. None of this is cheerful. If The Last Hunt stands the test of time, it’s perhaps because the cinematographer, Russell Harlan, foremost of the chief operators in Hollywood, has been able to pin down this curious universe in images and because Stewart Granger and especially Robert Taylor, who gets his best role here, have been able to “embody” beings who are tortured and tormented for no reason other than the emptiness of their conscience, beings “devoid of life”.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]