The Eyes of Tammy Faye: Jessica Chastain bats eyelashes at award judges
Despite appearing in some of the best dramas of the 2010s, Jessica Chastain often gets overlooked by awards voters despite stellar work in films such as Molly’s Game and A Most Violent Year. Undeterred, she’s back in the awards race with this new biopic, based on a remarkable life.
She plays Tammy Faye Bakker, the real-life singer and evangelist who became incredibly popular in the 1980s thanks to a TV empire built alongside her husband Jim (played here by Andrew Garfield). The film charts their rise to power, her advocacy of victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (at a time when other religious figures labelled it ‘God’s punishment’), and the revelations that would lead to their name being publicly tarnished.
Upon her death in 2007, Bakker was a divisive figure. To some, she was the grotesque endgame of The American Dream, with garish makeup, loud outfits, and an oblivious desire to be noticed. To others, she was a vibrant soul who became an ally to a community that had few, with a loving sincerity that drew comparisons to Dolly Parton and inspired Ru Paul to make the 2000 documentary upon which this is based.
The truth is probably somewhere in between, but director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) is definitely more interested in the positive take. The film shows Tammy Faye to be optimistic, helpful and compassionate, willing to step outside of the conservative Christian norm to preach a type of faith that seems more inclusive.
It takes a great performer to make that earnest nature believable, and Chastain nails the part. Transforming herself into a tangle of shoulder pads and eyelashes, she works brilliantly with Garfield, who is on a hot streak of great performances. Pasting a wide smile that only just covers the insecurities beneath, he’s a great partner and foil to our heroine.
It’s frustrating that this rise and fall story pulls its punches in the third act. In particular over allegations aimed at Jim that are framed as flings when in reality Bakker was accused of rape. He’s someone who fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell (played excellently by Vincent D’Onofrio) would call “a cancer in the body of Christ”, but the film tempers his misdeeds as it seeks to celebrate Tammy.
Like the subject herself, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is imperfect but fascinating. Chastain and Garfield light up the screen, with performances that leave a mark even if you’re left with the feeling that this is only one side of the story.