The Eyes of Tammy Faye | ★★★½ | Now playing in theaters
The sight of typically chiseled stars Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield’s cheeks padded by facial prosthetics is jarring at first. So are Chastain’s dark tattooed lip liner, weighty eyelashes, and Betty Boop voice.
But beyond the Oscar-worthy makeup, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Michael Showalter, paints a surprisingly moving portrait of an unlikely hero, martyred for her radical kindness and faith in humanity by the cruelty of public stigma.
But Bakker’s story is more triumph than tragedy, owing to the strength of Chastain’s performance and a script that works to undermine stereotypes rather than reinforce the prevailing public narrative.
Many people, myself included, knew little of the real Tammy Faye Bakker other than the ghoulish caricature—a living meme before memes—that popped up occasionally as tabloid fodder or as a side gag on Saturday Night Live.
Chastain, in a brilliant performance, brings that two-dimensional character into focus. Bakker, we learn, is more than a naive chubby-cheeked ingenue to Garfield’s televangelist (and convicted fraudster), Jim Bakker—she’s the one with the ideas, including to start a faith-based puppet show that would eventually transform into The PTL and The 700 Club.
Her version of faith, however, doesn’t exactly mesh with that of the dominant conservatives of the era, including Jerry Falwell, who is played convincingly by Vincent D’Onofrio.
Falwell and other leaders of the Christian right at the time touted an exclusionary version of morality, where God’s children excluded members of the LGBTQ community. Early on in the film, Bakker bucks this notion, suggesting God’s love is not restricted only to those that abide by their worldview.
Despite pushback from her husband, Bakker refuses to back down from her stance, and as the AIDS crisis emerges, becomes an outlier of the religious community when she conducts a groundbreaking interview of a man suffering from AIDS. Bakker speaks to him with sympathy and love rather than judgment.
But Bakker’s heart of gold is also her Achilles heel. When her husband is forced to resign from the ministry in disgrace in 1987, Bakker also becomes a target for public ridicule, her sincerity masked by the make-up tattooed on her face.
The more tragic dimensions her life takes on, the more misshapen her face looks beneath the prosthetics.
I went into The Eyes of Tammy Faye a skeptic and left disarmed of my assumptions. Chastain, who also served as producer of the film, made a bold choice in embodying Bakker as more than a punchline. Once you get past appearances, there’s a lot to love about Chastain’s Bakker. Her risk pays off.
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