Early on in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the film’s protagonist, famed American televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, explains to a makeup artist preparing her for an on-screen appearance that almost everything about her gaze has been sealed-on shut. Her eyebrows are tattooed, her eyelashes are glued on, her eyes are permanently delineated, and her lips, too, are chemically set. Removing her makeup is, essentially, impossible. But for all of her external prepared layers, Bakker ingratiated herself to millions of Americans because throughout her ministry she opened up a sincere window to her soul, and most liked what they saw. That duality is the challenging message that the film and its indomitable star Jessica Chastain must convey to audiences, including those discovering Bakker for the first time, a task they prove themselves well-suited to execute.
Tammy Faye née LaValle was raised in a mixed family in Minnesota in post-war America. Her family was devoutly Christian. Both parents were ministers, until her mother’s divorce caused a falling out with the local church, made worse only when her mother remarried. This experience weighed heavily on Tammy Faye who, rejected by the Church she so anxiously wished to be a part of, stubbornly refused to be shut out. This early episode in Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sick) adaptation effectively sets the stage for what is to come. Tammy Faye is a sincerely devout and as equally determined woman, as she was from a young age.
Soon, she meets Jim Bakker (a less effective Andrew Garfield) in college, and the two marry shortly before forming The PTL Club, the televangelist Christian news program that made them famous because of its unapologetically flashy style. The Bakkers believed in God, the Bible, and their teachings, except perhaps for one thing–any vow of poverty. Their shared desire to practice their faith while also practicing America’s religion (capitalism) is what drew them together at first and what made them famous later. The rest, as they say, is history, including her troubles with Bakker and, most importantly, her actions during the 1980s AIDS crisis in America that drew her apart from some of her fellow ministers, which include luminaries such as Jerry Falwell (an expertly made-up Vince D’Onofrio) and Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds).
While Bakker was mostly the star of her own storied life, the movie about it has two protagonists—Chastain herself, and the impressive team of artists who worked behind the scene to construct on the actress Tammy Faye’s distinctive look, from head to toe. The prosthetics for the film come courtesy of Justin Raleigh, who provides Chastain with the tools necessary to emulate Tammy Faye’s evolution and aging, her enlarging features, over the course of the years. He also has his gloss on Garfield, who is also seen to widen and lose his hair as the film progresses mostly linearly across its timeline. Head makeup artist Linda Dowds, meanwhile, gives both stars an additional layer of verisimilitude, considering how distinctive Tammy Faye’s broad smile, flourished eyebrows, and puffy hairdo made her. It is common for award-contending roles to be lifted by notably and even flashy makeup work, and expect the impressive work done on The Life Of Tammy Faye to land Chastain and the makeup gang citations next year. Costume designer Mitchell Travis adds his own gloss to these settings, particularly as Tammy Faye grows richer and more into her own extravagant lifestyle.
Ultimately, though, most of the kudos belong to the woman one can still perceive behind the various levels of polyester, silicone, and carbon. Chastain has proven her versatility over the years, playing women that have ranged from evil and calculating to completely aloof and clueless. For this role, Chastain strikes the right balance between Tammy Faye’s compassion and devotion and her seeming self-involvedness. The juxtaposition that lies at the heart of this woman’s life and soul, the one that made her so appealing to Americans, is in good hands with Chastain in charge because she knows how to give complexity to a character, even from behind a screen of makeup, better than most actors working today.
Ultimately, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is held back from being more than a decent movie by the weight of Abe Sylvia’s script, whose dialogue at times ventures on the absurd and insists on detracting you away from the otherwise compelling drama at the heart of the story. It also does not help that Showfalter is a bit too into his subject matter, at times getting in the eye of Chastain commanding a wider screen presence by focusing too closely on her distinctive look. Garfield’s typical, dopey presence does not do much to help either.
But, like most biopics about compelling and even controversial celebrities, The Eyes of Tammy Faye at least achieves its obvious, central objective: to remind you why people cared about this person and to persuade you to care for her all over again. Thanks mostly to Chastain’s emotive performance, her emulation of Tammy Faye’s memorable voice, and the makeup team’s tireless work, you may feel at times like you really were in the room with Tammy Faye. That presence is enough to electrify you, just as it moved so many of her disciples when she preached through the TV screen before being depicted by Hollywood.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week, and it’s now playing in select theaters and will expand nationwide on Friday, Sept. 24.
All photos courtesy Searchlight Studios.