Tammy Faye existed in a mess of contradictions. The success she and her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) achieved gave oxygen to an incredibly harmful Christian right-wing movement that has flourished in the past few decades. But at the same time, Tammy Faye herself was known for (at least within the evangelical ecosystem) being a caring and tolerant woman. This culminated in her high-profile interview with a gay man who had contracted AIDS at a time when the general attitude towards the LGBTQ community among conservative Christians was one of ignorance, fear, disapproval, and open hostility. Although Jessica Chastain’s performance as Tammy Faye is nuanced and powerful, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a disappointingly standard biopic with little inclination to dive beneath the surface.
The film follows the dramatic highs and lows of Tammy Faye’s life as we watch her and Jim build a Christian empire that surpassed anything else the evangelical community had seen up to that point, only to have it all come crashing down. Tammy Faye is raised up from abject poverty to the heights of fame and success, then fades, tragically, into obscurity. The saga of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker is well known even outside of Christian circles for many reasons. The idea of a beloved televangelist couple engaging in salacious behavior was still novel at the time, and everyone was ready to delight in the downfall of ministers who failed to practice what they preached. The dramatic details of their story lingered in the news for ages, not just Jim’s fraud and conspiracy charges, but allegations of infidelity (and, in the case, of Jim, homosexuality) dogged the pair until their eventual divorce. It’s meaty material for a biopic, and director Michael Showalter uses it to full advantage.
Jessica Chastain plays the starring role of Tammy Faye, and she owns every second of it. Rather than disappearing behind the famously heavy makeup she was known for, Chastain uses it to highlight Tammy Faye’s desperation for love and approval. Raised as the child of a born-again Christian from her first marriage, Tammy Faye was a constant reminder of her mother’s past in a community that looked down upon divorce. This informs every aspect of her character, from the makeup to the affected giggle to the focus on Jesus Christ as a figure of unconditional love. Chastain is a powerhouse in the role, bringing a larger-than-life presence to Tammy Faye while also showcasing her vulnerability.
The tragedy of Tammy Faye is that her star shone so brightly but was constantly being stifled by the men around her, who couldn’t bear to be upstaged by this unassuming woman with the high-pitched voice and the simple message that “Jesus loves everyone.” Her husband Jim, the one who convinced himself that God had led him to minister to the world, is a fundamentally uncharismatic speaker, at first grateful but later resentful of how effortlessly she would connect with audiences. Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) is also far from enthusiastic about her role within their community. At a would-be casual barbecue at his mansion, she pulls up a chair to join the menfolk as they discuss their plans for Christian world domination, and she could not be less welcome at his table if she had horns and a forked tongue.
But the fact that “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is so thoroughly rooted in the evangelical world is part of why it feels tonally unsure of itself. We embrace the story of this extraordinary woman, but at the same time can’t ignore her role in furthering what would be termed “prosperity gospel,” where fabulously wealthy evangelical figures go on television, beg for money from poor and working-class Christians while promising salvation, then pocket every cent of that money. It’s difficult to know who this movie is for, what demographic was clamoring for a Tammy Faye biopic. And even harder to determine is what the film is actually trying to say.
Thanks to the truly remarkable contributions of Jessica Chastain, we can walk away with a complete, empathetic understanding of who Tammy Faye was as a person. But in trying to capture not just her full life but also the rise and fall of an evangelical dynasty, it spreads itself thin, losing the thread the longer the film goes on. It’s not unenjoyable, just rather shallow, and nothing in it aside from Chastain’s performance is likely to linger in the mind of the viewer.