The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

Michael Showalter | 2hr 6min

Tammy Faye Bakker’s appearance is not one you can easily forget. It is burned into the minds of those who watched Christian television in the 1970s and 80s, and for those of us only learning about her now with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, her permanently lined lips and enormous mountain of hair immediately announce to audiences how she wants to be seen. Beneath the layers of make-up and prosthetics here, Jessica Chastain is virtually unrecognisable. Whether it is her greatest performance or not may be up for debate, but it may well be her most transformational, as she fully inhabits every detail of this extravagant televangelist right down to the squeaky voice and wide, honest smile.

At first it might seem like Michael Showalter is taking a non-linear approach to breaking down the life of Tammy Faye, opening with a montage of newsreels that cover the scandalous downfall of her and her husband, Jim Bakker, before cutting to a scene from years later as she prepares for a television appearance. Here, Showalter hangs in close on her bright blue eyes, heavy with mascara, and as he zooms out we listen to her expressing her great pride in them.

After jumping back in time to her childhood, The Eyes of Tammy Faye unfolds in a more conventional, chronological order, but even as she suffers through mockery and insults on her appearance, we are still often reminded of the self-confidence she expressed at the start. After all, her hair and make-up is her statement of identity, expressing herself as a passionate, fanciful person at odds with the religious culture of austere minimalism she lives in.

Then there is the other side of the ‘eyes’ motif, in which Showalter interrogates the limitations of her own perspective inside this culture that she has dedicated her life to.

“You follow blindly. In the end, all you are is blind.”

When Tammy Faye finds herself neck deep in her ministry work, surrounded by misogynists with no interest in her own welfare, these are the haunting words that her mother delivers with great sadness. And indeed, exploitation and fraud runs rampant within the organisation, keeping her distracted with a steady diet of pills and overly cheery demeanours.

One could accuse Tammy of bearing a similarly superficial presentation, though there is a difference between Chastain’s performance and the others. Andrew Garfield often distinguishes between the version of Jim that appears on television versus the secretive one behind the scenes who she distantly watches engage in quiet conversations, but the childhood entertainer schtick that Chastain takes to playing Tammy Faye never seems to fade, even when she is alone. As saccharine and naïve as she may be, she carries an authenticity that so many of her associates lack. When she interviews a gay Christian minister with AIDS on her show against the wishes of her superiors, it is not done as an act of defiance, but rather out of empathy. She is “in the business of healing”, she claims, not of telling people that they are going to hell, and especially not of politics.

For the most part, this film is a showcase of one remarkable performance, though every now and again Showalter’s stylistic flourishes of freeze frames and glitzy yellow time stamps effectively magnify the flashy charisma its main character to a cinematic level. At a certain point it feels as if this narrative has run its course, and perhaps a more succinct screenplay may have helped tighten up this overlong, tensionless ending, but the loud, brash finale that completely consumes us within Tammy Faye’s mind might just make it all worth it. For all the traditional biopic conventions that shape its structure and writing, The Eyes of Tammy Faye embraces the wholesome perspective that its title implies, empathising greatly with this unorthodox televangelist who unassumingly followed a moral standard she naively believed her fellow Christians could also live up to.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently playing in theatres.

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