“This is who I am,” proclaims Jessica Chastain’s version of the titular televangelist in the opening scene of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, referencing not some painfully divulged truth but the revelation that her garish makeup and gaudy eyelashes are permanent fixtures on her face. How a story can spin such a moment is infinite. Does she say this confidently and in defiance of other people’s opinions? Is it a painful moment tinged by the inescapability of past mistakes? Or is it spoken obliviously, entirely unaware that her persona is one that many find in poor taste?
Simply contrast the way this moment plays in director Michael Showalter’s biopic versus the documentary of the same name on which it’s based to see the breadth. Showalter uses it as a tantalizing hook, the proclamation hanging unadorned and begging for context, which the movie whips back in time to provide. The documentary places it nearer the end and presents it as a humorous moment of self-sabotage. It’s the closest the messy but ultimately loving piece comes to outright ridiculing her, the consummate performer earning ire for failing at her most important task: to understand what the audience wants.
The slipperiness of the moment does, in its way, say exactly who Tammy Faye is as a pop culture entity. She’s an unknowable figure, ubiquitous and opaque, a mess of contradictions that no one seems able to get past no matter how much they try.
And try The Eyes of Tammy Faye, both documentary and biopic, does. Their ultimate failure is a more forgivable sin in the 2000 doc, whose scrappiness makes its wavering between adoration and suspicion less grating. Against the sheen of a star-studded biopic, though, it smears away any sense of truth.
The biopic would have you believe that Tammy Faye was once a shamed child who grew into a devout, poor wife of a traveling preacher. She then became a devout, rich wife of a televangelist, and then a disgraced figure no one wanted. Throughout it all she’s spunky, genuinely caring, and lonely. It’s the kind of epic rise and fall that would naturally attract a big name like Chastain, who wears so much makeup and prosthetics to play the image-centric woman that they’re bound to be a big part in whatever awards campaign comes from the movie (one can imagine, if it carries her all the way to the finish line, Denzel Washington replacing his “by a nose” comment about Nicole Kidman’s Oscar win for The Hours with “by a jowl”).
Underneath all the accoutrements Chastain does her best to bring this woman to life, but the movie fails to give her a throughline, a truth to cling to, and so moments instead of the entirety of her performance pop. Chastain does well with bits of humor that should be tacky, and when she and Andrew Garfield as husband Jim Bakker finally have it out both performers transcend the trappings.
But the movie, for the most part, is all trappings. Showalter has taken advantage of his subject’s camp appeal to tell her story through extravagance. The particular dialect of evangelicals gives shape to the insular world she thrives in, exaggerated hair and outfits mark the passing decades, and the extraordinary wealth Tammy Faye and Jim would come to enjoy form a flimsy but comfortable shield from their demons.
The question of whether this wealth was legal or ill-gotten is at the core of the couple’s downfall and Tammy Faye’s own reputation. Their televangelism was among the most successful enterprises in the business, but Jim was found guilty of fraud after reporters and police investigated their fundraising activities. Tammy Faye would never be convicted, leaving the door open to question how much she knew about the fraud and the other allegations against Jim (including rape) that both documentary and biopic skate over.
The unwillingness to question what could be her deepest flaws is what leaves The Eyes of Tammy Faye so glaringly lacking. Sure, she was an attention hound and they’re honest about that, and she defiantly supported gay people throughout the AIDS epidemic, which they rightly praise her for. But all of that is small potatoes, morally, to the question of whether she took advantage of people’s faith to scam them. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that, whatever you decide, it fundamentally changes your view of the woman.
To put out a piece of art about anyone is to assert an opinion on them, and shying away from the most fundamental aspect of Tammy Faye’s life causes both documentary and biopic to give a scattershot portrait of her. Their Tammy Faye is a caricature masquerading as a real person. The assertion that they find out who she really is, or even present a twisted, subjective version, is nothing but a beautiful lie.
Release: available in theaters on September 17th, 2021
Director: Michael Showalter
Writers: Abe Sylvia
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio