If there’s an image that can signify American tabloid culture of the 1980s, it just might be the iconic eyelashes of Tammy Faye Bakker, a groundbreaking televangelist and the wife of charismatic preacher Jim Bakker.
Tammy Faye was a pioneer in the world of televangelism, known for her puppets and powerful singing, but the Bakkers suffered a scandal-plagued fall from grace, thanks to Jim’s famous infidelities and schemes to defraud his audience.
Tammy took the fall for standing by her man and was the butt of many jokes for her style of self-presentation. But in the past 20 years, there’s been an attempt to publicly redeem her, most notably in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 cult documentary, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” narrated by RuPaul. In a film based on that documentary, directed by Michael Showalter and written by Abe Silva, Jessica Chastain dons Tammy Faye’s famous falsies and finds a great deal of grace and strength in her story.
Chastain’s powerhouse performance is the engine of this film. She sings from deep within her gut and imbues Tammy Faye with a sense of relentless positivity and gumption that doesn’t just drive this young woman to find herself a way out of a life of poverty in International Falls, Minn., but also motivates her husband, Jim (Andrew Garfield) to seek the highest station he can in the arms race that was 1960s televangelism.
Chastain’s performance is not so much an imitation or channeling of Tammy Faye, but rather a tribute to the distinct qualities that made her such a fascinating presence: the makeup, yes, but also her perennially chipper nature and high baby voice, inspired by Betty Boop.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” unfolds at an almost breakneck pace, a head rush of charismatic preaching and showbiz scheming, the tone reflective of Tammy Faye’s consistently upbeat nature, powered by endless Diet Cokes, later smoothed over with Ativan. Her charm and screen presence were an integral part of the Bakkers’ TV success, and her televised displays of emotion remain precursors to the kind of content that audiences seek out on reality TV today.
This film has a very specific perspective, and it does not stop and dwell on certain things that don’t have much to do with Tammy Faye herself, glossing over the influence Rev. Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) had on Republican politics in the 1980s (the reverberations of which are felt mightily today), and sharing only basic details of the Jessica Hahn scandal. This is a film about Tammy Faye’s personal experiences of this roller coaster life, the faith that propelled her to such heights, and the loyalty that was her ultimate downfall.
What “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” proves is that, though she was seen as a scandal-plagued joke in the 1990s, the work of Tammy Faye Bakker was akin to that of the People’s Princess. Her brand of Christianity was joyful and indeed rooted in prosperity gospel, but it was also loving and bravely inclusive.
Two years before Princess Diana famously shook the hand of an AIDS patient, Tammy Faye featured an emotional interview with a gay minister and AIDS activist, Steve Pieters, on her show, “Tammy’s House Party,” in 1985, in which she tearfully argued for empathy and care for all AIDS patients.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” and specifically Chastain’s performance, returns that same empathy to Tammy Faye herself. Most importantly, it doesn’t try to change who she was: a woman of faith, a showgirl, a makeup enthusiast, a deeply loving person, and ultimately, a phoenix who rose from the ashes of tabloid scandal.