How do you solve a problem like Tammy Faye? The tears. The puppets. The mascara. Bakker, the evangelical darling turned public punching bag turned camp icon, was a figure so garish, so dramatic, and so thoroughly American that, had she not existed, they would have had to make her up. The televangelist embodied the new era of prosperity gospel in the era of the burgeoning stranglehold the hard-right wing of Christianity had on social and political life. While the tendrils of the Bakker-era religious hypocrisy can be found in all corners of American life, Tammy Faye has long had a second surge in the public consciousness as a queer legend and misunderstood woman long due her cultural re-evaluation. More than 20 years ago, a documentary from the team behind World of Wonder, the production company that birthed the Drag Race franchise, reveled so giddily in her kitschy earnestness that they had RuPaul narrate the story. Now, comedic director Michael Showalter is behind the camera for a based-on-that-documentary biopic that sees Jessica Chastain front and center in an already-heated Best Actress race.
It’s easy to see why Chastain, also a producer of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, was keen to shepherd this picture to the big screen. The role, and the story surrounding it, are the epitome of Hollywood awards bait. The marketing had clamped down hard on this aspect too. From the splashy physical transformation of Chastain to the positioning of Tammy Faye’s life as one as worthy of feminist reconsideration as Marcia Clark and Monica Lewinsky, every aspect of the movie practically bellows ‘for your consideration’ to a catchy disco beat. This is a movie engineered to be a showcase, both for Chastain and an oft-imitated cultural benchmark, for better or worse.
But let’s start with the better. Yes, Chastain is all kinds of great in this role. Best known for her refinement and classic charm that wouldn’t look out of place in a Golden Age women’s drama or noir, Chastain has often been underserved by her films or had her most interesting performances ignored by the mainstream (hello, Crimson Peak). She is as striking in naturalistic mode as she is in mannered moments, which is a solid mixture of approaches for tackling someone as endlessly performative as Tammy Faye. She clearly has great affection for Bakker, a woman who, as shown in Showalter’s film, embraced a bevy of contradictions to great effect. The big eyes, infamously bordered with that explosion of mascara, are eagerly enthusiastic while perpetually on the verge of tears. She’s guileless to a fault, an open book whose willingness to embrace it all lead to periods of major self-flagellation.
Chastain nails the affectations, like the Betty Boop voice and the Fosse-esque hand gestures. The performance will be much discussed for the prosthetics and aesthetics, but Chastain is at her most impactful in the quieter moments that reveal Tammy Faye’s media savvy. The tight grin of irritation that turns to a slyly played TV moment when she reveals her pregnancy to Jim live on-air shows a woman who knows how to make the camera love her. As the film rolls on and the problems mount for the Bakkers, Chastain captures the weariness of having to play a role 24/7 and not knowing how to turn it off. The more fractured her marriage becomes with Jim (Andrew Garfield finds the sweet spot between smarm and charm, and smiles like the Grinch) and the more they manipulate one another into on-screen confessionals, the more the phones ring with donations.
Michael Showalter is best known for comedies like Wet Hot American Summer and The Big Sick, so it wouldn’t have proven especially shocking if he had chosen to take the easy route of ceaseless camp with this film. Mercifully, he doesn’t. Really, we don’t see all that much of the shows the Bakkers made that turned them into every comedian’s dream. Showalter and writer Abe Sylvia are more interested in the performance of it all. The mink furs and gold-plated toilets are all here but are primarily backdrop to the petty schemings of the evangelical big boys who passive-aggressively fight to be the top boss. Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) can barely hide his jealousy over Bakker’s growing fame, while Jerry Falwell (an especially unctuous Vincent D’Onofrio) is introduced walking into the scene like a gangster. The more people keep saying ‘God told me’ as justification for their own selfishness, the more pathetic it sounds. It’s clear that not even the believers buy that line.
Chastain sings a lot, including some genuine disco bops, which feels fitting with how much The Eyes of Tammy Faye feels like a musical biopic. Narratively, this is very much a by-the-numbers tale, right down to the frenzied montage full of Tammy Faye popping prescription pills. All the familiar beats are hit here: the childhood scenes of yearning and familial strife (with the ever-welcome Cherry Jones as Tammy’s old-school disapproving mother); the rise of their empire; the drugs and the money and the bathtub handjobs. We see darker moments of Tammy’s life but the film is firmly on her side in a way that often doesn’t allow for some key breathing moments. When you’ve so thoroughly decided who your hero is, how do you embrace the less palatable side of that individual?
What The Eyes of Tammy Faye ended up reminding me of was I, Tonya, the Craig Gillespie dramedy that sought to rewrite history with the infamous ice skater Tonya Harding. While that film did end up offering some crucial recontextualizing of her life and troubles, it did so at the cost of important facts that incriminated Harding in the attack of Nancy Kerrigan. It seemed out of the film’s reach to offer an empathetic portrait that didn’t sacrifice the prickly honesty of its subject. Tammy Faye wasn’t a doe-eyed babe led astray by the evil Jim Bakker. Showalter doesn’t exactly say that either, but the film doesn’t give as much time to showing her keen eye for spinning yarns and exploiting her hungry audiences.
Tammy Faye is the compassionate hero who embraces LGBTQ+ people, including via a landmark live interview with AIDS patient Steve Pieters, while Falwell is the bigoted bully who wants to drag politics into Jesus. It’s an overtly binary definition of the power play happening in this era, when the likes of Falwell and Robertson wielded evangelical zeal to bring far-right conservatism to the mainstream via Reagan’s White House. The Bakkers may not have been like that in the ’80s (although Jim’s now endorsing Trump and selling apocalypse food buckets, so times have changed), but they certainly helped to pave the groundwork for what would come. Positioning Tammy Faye as the girl with gumption and God in her heart without agenda feels reductive as well as only telling part of the story. While visiting Jim in jail, she makes reference to ‘that poor girl’, meaning Jessica Hahn, who accused Bakker and another preacher of rape (Jim paid her off with money from donors, which led to his jail sentence.) In real life, Tammy Faye described Hahn in her memoir as a ‘professional’ who ‘knew what she was doing.’ Would such a detail be too difficult to include in a glowing portrait? Or just inconvenient?
The Eyes of Tammy Faye has two jobs to complete: Give Jessica Chastain an awards-worthy showcase and add new layers to the story of an oft-derided public figure. The former is a slam dunk, but the latter could use some work. These objectives seem at odds with one another: a conventional biopic structure gives Chastain the stage she needs, but it limits Bakker’s story to one of simple beats and lowered expectations. Surely there was so much more going on beneath that highly blushed surface.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is playing in limited release in the U.S. as of Sept. 17, 2021.