If there was a dark side to Tammy Faye Bakker, it has yet to be exposed. Following scandal, death, and several tell-all books, the worst thing anyone has to say about the chirpy televangelist-turned-national punchline was that she turned a blind eye to her husband Jim Bakker’s many affairs and financial indiscretions—because, after all, a good Christian wife is a loyal helpmeet who honors her husband as she would God himself. The story of Tammy Faye Bakker is one of blind faith: in God, in people, and most of all in God’s people, a faith that turned out to be horribly misplaced. Sure, she had permanent lip liner and wore more eye makeup than RuPaul, who narrated the 2000 documentary on which this biopic is based. But if we’re holding space to re-evaluate America’s collective condemnation of Britney Spears, Lorena Bobbit, and Courtney Stodden, then why not Tammy Faye?
The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is directed by Michael Showalter, who got his start as a member of the cult sketch-comedy group The State. That would seem to indicate a satirical approach to the material, and indeed the aesthetic and tone of this film are heightened to the point of absurdity. In early scenes where they’re giddy with love for Jesus and each other, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and Jim (Andrew Garfield) act like they’re high on helium. But while Showalter relishes the camp value of the film’s costumes, makeup, and set design, make no mistake: This is a sympathetic portrait. Sympathetic to a fault, even, as Showalter sacrifices dramatic tension and thematic heft to emphasize Tammy Faye’s innocence. Even her biggest sin, an affair with the producer of her many overwrought gospel albums, is presented as a moment of weakness prompted by years of loneliness.
In function, this is a standard biopic, complete with a sequence tracing points on a map over jaunty praise music as a young Jim and Tammy crisscross the country as traveling preachers. Scenes set during Tammy Faye’s childhood in Minnesota in the early ’50s present her as an unwanted, unloved child who took refuge in Jesus; when she meets Jim eight years later at Bible college, the two bond over their then-unconventional ideas about religion. (They dance! To rock ’n’ roll!) Tammy Faye holds on to her personal gospel of unconditional love throughout the film, including a compassion for LGBTQ+ people and AIDS patients that scandalized church leaders in the ’80s and later made her a gay icon. In November 1985, two months after then-President Ronald Reagan first acknowledged the existence of AIDS, Tammy Faye interviewed gay, HIV-positive minister Steve Pieters on the Bakkers’ PTL (Praise The Lord) network, a seismic event in Christian TV circles that’s faithfully re-enacted here.
Jim, meanwhile, falls into a pit of ambition and avarice driven by his preaching of prosperity gospel, a cornerstone of modern evangelical Christianity reductively described as the belief that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye makes reference to the tenets of prosperity gospel throughout, and coyly addresses the doubts Jim might have had—long after the damage had already been done—about how Christian it really was to teach that God loves the rich more than the poor. But these innuendoes are absent in dizzy, VHS-accented scenes of the Bakkers’ rise from lowly hosts of a Christian kids’ puppet show to multi-millionaire owners of a massive complex that included, as Jim puts it, “the world’s first Christian water park.” Indulging in shopping sprees and living in a series of increasingly luxurious houses, Tammy Faye never asks too many questions, which you could read either as naïveté or craven self-interest. Showalter doesn’t seem terribly interested in parsing the difference—and that, along with Tammy Faye’s exclusion from the real decision-making at PTL, results in a good hour of dramatic wheel-spinning.
Again, maybe there isn’t a there there when it comes to Tammy Faye’s dark side. But if Showalter resists a cartoon takedown of Tammy Faye Bakker, he also hasn’t made a very deep look at the world she came up in. The villain of the story is Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), founder of the Moral Majority and railer against Teletubbies as homosexual propaganda. (Pretty much everything was homosexual propaganda to Falwell.) There’s a fascinating thread here about Falwell’s fusing of evangelical Christianity and Republican politics, and how it led to our current national predicament. Seen through Tammy Faye’s eyes, however, Falwell is simply a pushy jerk to be defied in her own subtle, feminine ways. It’s debatable whether an Adam McKay-style explainer on the larger history of evangelicalism in America would be an asset to this film. But the fact remains that if you don’t know much about those issues, you won’t learn much more from The Eyes Of Tammy Faye.
The film satisfies most as an aesthetic object. From mauve shag carpeting to white wicker patio furniture, the set design is an enjoyably gaudy time capsule of ’70s and ’80s mid-American kitsch. The costumes, heavy on polyester, spangles, satin, and fur, are also deliciously garish, but the greatest below-the-line achievements in this film are from the hair and makeup team. As Tammy Faye ages, Chastain disappears under increasingly thick layers of makeup, from a fresh, chipmunk-cheeked look for her as a young co-ed—you can still recognize Chastain at this point—to a heavy prosthetic that the star says took seven-and-a-half hours to apply. Her eyelashes are tarantulas, her bronzer is bright orange, and her lipstick is spackled on. But that’s what the real Tammy Faye Bakker looked like, no exaggeration required.
To that end, The Eyes Of Tammy Faye emphasizes that this is a faithful interpretation and not a caricature with its closing credits, which juxtapose clips from the film with the on-camera moments being reenacted. Chastain has studied the tapes, so to speak, impeccably re-creating Tammy Faye’s bubbly giggle, Betty Boop timbre, and Minnesota accent, all pursed lips and long vowels. It’s impressive how deep she sinks into the technical aspects of the performance, but a skilled impersonation matters little if there’s no heart behind it. It surely helped having Garfield—a dynamic performer, even in movies that aren’t worth his talents—to play off of; the two genuinely seem to be having fun in the movie’s nuttier moments. But it’s when Tammy Faye’s faith is tested that Chastain is able to harness something real, culminating in a knockout musical number that helps the viewer understand how Bakker—a woman who, from the outside, seemed like a joke—was able to win so many souls. That’s not easy to do. Especially under all of that makeup.