The television star’s portrayal of Jessica Chastain gives a look at the woman under the makeup
Tammy Faye Bakker did a lot of makeup. It was armor – for a man who did not consider himself beautiful, simply present in the world. So it’s a cruel irony in particular that Kajal was also the thing that made her and her ex-husband a target and mocked long before the ministry’s misappropriation of funds.
Women have never been afforded the luxury of being present in the world, especially when they dare to be in public like Tammy did. Who cares what she says, what she looks like matters, right? And Tammy was an especially easy target, for her childish voice, “bad” makeup and flashy clothes, and perhaps most of all for the fact that she liked the way she looked.
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It makes sense, then, that in this moment when we’re reevaluating some of the women we scoffed at for their appearances and supporting roles in men’s scandals so casually that Tammy Faye would get another look as well. In the aptly titled “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the camera, and star and producer Jessica Chastain dare us to reflect on what’s below.
The makeup is never interpreted or outwardly mocked by the filmmakers, but it is a focal point from the first frame as an unseen woman tries to clean Tammy’s face only to realize it. For the most part it is permanent. In Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy from her college years to her early ’60s, the layers gradually piled up. When she meets Jim Bakker for the first time (played with admirable restraint and just smart enough by Andrew Garfield), she comes across as fresh-faced.
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In this traditional, Soup to Nuts biopic that’s based on a documentary, director Michael Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia go out of their way to sympathize with Tammy. They return to her childhood in International Falls, Minnesota, where her mother (Cherry Jones) forbids her to go to church with the family (she is not welcome as a child of divorce). But she busts out anyway and after one sip the holy wine is seeping on the floor, speaking in tongues and a miracle is being declared.
It starts her way, but her purpose isn’t clear until she sees Jim in college and they become bound by the idea that poverty is not the kind of purity they aspire to. Soon, they are marrying and fishing for their own place in the new field of televangelism.
Tammy is presented as a relentlessly earnest and childlike charming with a heart of gold, which Chastain sells without being cartoonish — and in itself an impressive feat of one of our most natural actors. It’s a tough act of camp and Lifetime television, especially as she starts living on Ativan and Diet Coke.
And it helps redefine the women behind mascara: She’s given potentially overdue credit for being the mastermind behind her unique brand of televangelism and speaking out about the things she believes in. Several scenes are dedicated to showing his sympathy for the LGBTQ community. .
And yet there is no curiosity about the money that used to put them in gold and fur. Tammy and Jim just keep getting more and more and asking for more and more from their audience. Was it collusion? clumsy? A convenient combination of both? The film simply sheds light on this, leading her to believe that her fate is a gift from God, such that the audience cannot handle a narrative where she can be both good and greedy. Attempts to comment on the world that his contemporary Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio) was building around him also come across as trivial.
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It’s a strange feeling to spend over two hours with this Tammy Faye, coming out by her side and still feeling conflicted about it that the film neither says nor questions. That’s part of the problem with some of these reconsiderations – they tend to be over-improvements at the cost of more obvious truths.
But though “Tammy Faye” may be imperfect, it succeeds in at least one important way: We’re not seeing her makeup anymore.
Searchlight Pictures’ “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” released in theaters Friday, has been rated PG-13 for “sexual material and drug abuse” by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 126 mins. Two and a half stars out of four.