Review of “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye”: Jessica Chastain Makes A Ridiculous Effort In The Glam Biopic
Jessica Chastain’s physical transformation is explored in detail in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Chastain plays outrageous yet luminous televangelist and queer icon Tammy Faye Messner – and the most “misunderstood woman in history” to be offered the biopic treatment. She sports spidery lashes, goldilocks ringlets, splotchy white eyeshadow, and prosthetic chipmunk cheeks. Excessively sparkling, she borders on ridiculous.
However, “ridiculous” is a reasonably accurate description of the public perception of Tammy Faye in the late Eighties. As both an Evangelical oddity and a figure of camp fun, she’d been made the scapegoat for her duplicitous former husband, Jim Bakker. Despite being accused of rape and convicted of mail and wire fraud, he was only punished for misusing people’s money, not for the sexual assault. The extravagance displayed by Tammy Faye, both in dress and in how she expressed her emotions, was viewed as an equal sin.
In the following decades, this image of a woman too much for America’s tastes has been slowly unpacked and reconsidered – first by a 2000 documentary also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, narrated by RuPaul, and later by the popular podcast: You’re Wrong About. Ten years ago, Chastain originally acquired rights to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary. Chastain and her director, Michael Showalter of Wet Hot American Summer, may not be able to do much more to rehabilitate Tammy Faye in the public eye. Having an A-lister take on a transformative, Oscar-prize-winning role is the final coat of legitimacy.
The film’s more conventional biopic segments contain some pop psychiatry. Rachel (Cherry Jones), Tammy Faye’s mother, disallows her entrance to church due to her previous marriage – a mark of shame in her rigid Pentecostal community. Tammy Faye responds by speaking in tongues and wetting herself in imitation of religious fervor. The congregation immediately embraces her. She becomes a lifelong performer. She is so eager to please Jim (Andrew Garfield) both sexually and emotionally that she is blinded to his fraud and self-interest at first.
While Chastain is never overplaying her affectations, the sincerity of her performance suggests that she has a lot of compassion for a woman whose vast capacity for love made her vulnerable to exploitation. Garfield, the man of the hour, matches her boyish grin so emphatically that Jim’s cruelty seems all the more vicious.
It is difficult to watch a film that sticks so closely to its subject, in its perspective and emotions. Jessica Hahn, Bakker’s accuser, never speaks directly to us in a way that incidentally diminishes the gravity of her claims. And while the film presents Tammy Faye’s compassionate 1985 conversation with Aids activist Steve Pieters, we don’t get a glimpse of the ripple effects of her support for the LGBTQ+ community. Especially when rival pastor, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), was simultaneously consolidating the alliance between the Republican Party and the Christian right, which still shapes so much of American politics. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the author has done right by hitting the subject, but only at the cost of shrinking her world.