Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye Will Make You Cry With Joy

·7 min read
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Everyone has to be in on the joke. That’s the only way The Eyes of Tammy Faye works.

What makes the movie remarkable, then, is that it’s not a joke. It may, in fact, be the most faithful biopic a subject can ask for. That the subject is still a target for scrutiny, from depiction to ensuing rumor-mongering, speaks to just how juicy this story is, and how skilled everyone in the creative team is in not just understanding our interest in the story, but how it would be told.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye starts in on that. Those eyes. There are documentary clips that establish how much of a public figure she became, but then we just see those eyes. They’re the window to the soul, after all—or whatever. We like to tell ourselves such things to feel more smug when we’re judging people.

In any case, the camera is focused on Tammy, who is having a make-up consultation. It’s been years since she was a captivating televangelist, a singer-songwriter-puppeteer, or the saving grace of church-going women with credit card numbers at their disposal. She looks enthusiastic and tired. But the make-up artist has a job to do.

Played by Jessica Chastain, Tammy Faye is asked about peeling some of the caked-on layers off. Presumably the idea is that we’ll get to know her better. Well, it turns out, the make-up is tattooed on. The lip liner, the eye liner, and the eyebrows. They’re permanent. And Bakker is sure as hell not going to take off her lashes. It is 1994, and those lashes are who she is. Her signature.

“So that’s really you?” the consultant asks, staring at a face so curated and so dissected that to even witness it would render disbelief. Chastain, as Bakker, nods. “This is who I am.”

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Ostensibly, that’s the goal of any biopic. The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which premiered this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, stares into that goal, that reputation. And then it dares it, as Bakker herself did, to be different. To follow the path—this is very paint-by-numbers—but do it her own way.

This is colored as outside the lines as Bakker’s eyeliner would eventually be. That juxtaposition is what makes the film so captivating. Each beat is struck, but it’s so slightly off the rhythm it should be ascribed to that you’re forever on edge.

Chastain is delivering a performance that so toes the line between theatrical and indisputably lived-in—like you would argue that this isn’t a real person and also that you have never seen a person act more in line with someone you know—that the only response is to shrug and give her awards.

This is all to say that Tammy Faye Bakker was outrageous. And, thank god, so is this film.

When it comes to the paint-by-numbers aspect, the film stays within the lines. Bakker, of course, has the kind of pop-culture mythology where people know her name and her one thing—crying—without bothering to understand the person behind it.

And so The Eyes of Tammy Faye spends time in International Falls, Minnesota, where a young Tammy is so desperate to be saved by God that she interrupts a sermon to have the exorcism take place. Her need for attention in relief to her loved-ones’ pleas that she simply just chill will never leave her, but thankfully we are given Cherry Jones as her mother to portray that exasperation.

She meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) while at Bible school. They’re randy for each other and for their respective life dreams—physically and spiritually, you could say, they vibed—and they begin traveling the country preaching while being young and hot. The thing about the sixties is that, eventually, that would stick. They became famous.

Even in such a patriarchal time and field, they both did. Tammy was as integral to their success as Jim was, or God, even. The next several decades of her life, and the film’s running time, would be about her validating that worth.

Chastain is phenomenal as Tammy Faye Bakker. She plays her from a naive teenager through modern times. Prosthetics help with the latter, and are apparently controversial.

It’s strangely fitting for there to be scandal surrounding such a spectacular performance. Where were the pearl clutchers any of the times men started off on the Oscar trail for playing real-life figures with jowls and double chins? But, either way, here is a woman who understands how the world jeers at her and uses that as a tool for her message. And that message, no matter how skeptical you are, is that God loves you.

She convinces you of that so sincerely that you reach into your wallet and donate to the cause, a cause that is never specified beyond Jesus and God and Tammy, but is powerful nevertheless. Tammy is that powerful. Her spirituality is that powerful. You can’t see her and not bear witness, even if you’re being defrauded. You have to buy into that to buy into the story of Tammy Faye. To buy into Jessica Chastain playing her. To buy into this movie. Praise God, it all works.

She does the Minnesota accent. She does the singing. (Did you know how many Tammy Faye songs were legitimate bops?) And she does the crying.

The crying may be the most important part. That’s what we know Tammy Faye for. As the empire she and Jim Bakker built came tumbling down amidst allegations of fraud, manipulation, and his homosexuality, she cried. She cried because her life was in ruin. And she cried because this is not what Jesus wanted...she was broken and betrayed.

Tammy Faye Bakker became a pop-culture joke, one that is referenced even now, as things that Bakker never could have imagined existing, like Real Housewives, evoke her legacy as Erika Girardi pleads for sympathy amidst headlines for some Very Bad Things. In order for a Tammy Faye movie to work, you have to have a visceral understanding of the Very Bad Things, but also a deep empathy for Tammy.

An act like that should seem positively grotesque. But there’s something about Tammy’s earnestness and her unbridled faith—maybe that most of all—that wins you over. She cries, and you feel bad. Maybe, even, she’s a hero?

It’s probably not polite to use words like this, but it’s a “miracle” that Chastain pulls all that off. (Her singing as Tammy, by the way, is excellent.) There will be discourse about prosthetics and fat suits. We roll our eyes. Show me another way for a person to play a figure like Tammy from teen to legend.

That’s the main thing. It’s not a question of how do you play a legend—actors love to portray the greats—but rather, how do you humanize a meme?

The adulation and subsequent ridicule Tammy received as an evangelist who earnestly sang her faith is so pure that it almost escapes satire. Sure, Saturday Night Live and late-night TV made her into the butt of the joke, but all of that missed the fact that thousands of people were so devout to her spirit and her image that they contributed to the debt that she was crying over.

How do you convey that power? That hypocrisy? Somehow, and, yes, with some prosthetics, Chastain does it. But what she does more impressively is telegraph that spirit, that infallible presence that, streaked-mascara and all, made a legend.

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