The Eyes of Tammy Faye easily could’ve veered into failed Oscar bait territory. Part of that’s because Tammy Faye is practically a caricature of herself. From her thick Southern accent to the layers of makeup, a figure like Faye is ripe for sketch comedy. For a serious biopic about her to work, you need an actress who can unearth the humanity behind the eyelashes. Jessica Chastain is more than up to the task, channeling Faye from her opening scene. Is this the best performance of Chastain’s career? That’s hard to say when your résumé also includes Zero Dark Thirty and The Tree of Life, but it’s undeniably her most transformative role.
Andrew Garfield is equally hard to recognize as Jim Bakker, who shares Tammy’s passion for Jesus and showmanship. Meeting in college, Tammy and Jim hit the road as traveling preachers. Of course, they tie the knot first, much to the dismay of Tammy’s mother (Rachel LaValley). Tammy’s mom also doesn’t understand why her daughter needs to turn Christianity into a dog and pony show. Tammy and Jim have big dreams, though, finding fame and fortune upon launching The PTL Club TV show. On the surface, Garfield plays Jim with the kindly nature of Fred Rogers and the ambitious drive of Walt Disney. Behind closed doors, however, Jim is up to his neck in fraud, sexual misconduct, and other scandals waiting to get out.
As layered as Garfield’s performance is, The Eyes of Tammy Faye belongs to Chastain. With a lesser actress in the role, this might’ve been the most scenery-chewing performance since Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. While Chastain sometimes embraces Tammy’s melodramatic side, she ultimately gets to the televangelist’s sympathetic center. Tammy tries using her platform for good, most notably during a live interview with an HIV/AIDS patient. Chastain portrays Tammy as a strong-willed spirit willing to go against her husband and the ultra-conservative pastor Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). At the same time, the camera and fancy mansion blind Tammy from what’s right in front of her.
Chastain throws herself into the role, providing her own singing voice and somehow emoting behind all that makeup. Like Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman in The Hours, the makeup doesn’t upstage the performance, but it does play an essential role. In a way, the makeup conveys Tammy’s character arc. As a young college girl, she doesn’t wear a ton, but it’s enough to receive judgmental looks from her educator. The wealthier Tammy becomes, the more makeup she piles on, eventually becoming a permanent fixture of her face. Tammy’s marriage also becomes more artificial. As much as Tammy tries to turn a blind eye, there isn’t enough makeup to hide the truth forever.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye warrants comparison to I, Tonya, giving us a more nuanced understanding of a disgraced public figure. The film lacks the dark humor that made I, Tonya such an engrossing experience. It could’ve used a bit more comedy, especially considering that director Michael Showalter previously brought usThe Big Sick and Hello, My Name Is Doris. Showalter does bring a sense of whimsy to his direction, which is made all the more effective when he cuts back to brutal reality. This helps to distinguish The Eyes of Tammy Faye from other biopics, despite still occasionally hitting familiar notes. Even at its most familiar, though, Chastain’s performance is one of a kind.