The new biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye is so imbued with drama that the story behind the story could make its own little deliciously cinematic vignette. Picture it: It’s 2012 and Jessica Chastain is on the press tour for the movie featuring what will become her breakout role, Zero Dark Thirty (for which she was eventually nominated for an Oscar). She’s flicking around channels and stops when she comes upon an image familiar to anyone who was paying attention to pop culture in the ’80s: the larger-than-life presence of Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker). Known for eyelashes that could be spotted from the moon, a Betty Boop voice, fraternizing with puppets, and the scandal that stripped her and her husband Jim Bakker of their empire—which included a Christian cable network and theme park—Tammy Faye Bakker came to be considered by many a laughingstock. That is, until a 2000 documentary directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the visionaries behind the production company World of Wonder and co-creators of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the project examined the fallen televangelist through a much more sympathetic lens, highlighting her gay-friendliness, irresistible eccentricities, and, more than anything, apparent kindness that seemed much more in line with a Christian way of life than most people who have made a fortune in this country peddling Jesus and the promise of prosperity to a desperate flock.
Chastain, as described in a recent Los Angeles Times profile, connected with the misunderstood Messner and snapped up the rights to the doc. Now, nearly 10 years later, her compassion has come to fruition. The Chastain-starring Eyes of Tammy Faye is out Friday and it is a wild ride, part conventional rags-to-riches-to-rags biopic, part performance art featuring Chastain under increasing layers of prosthetics and pounds of eyelashes pitching up her voice to meet Bakker’s exhilaration. Chastain frequently turns up her performance to an 11 (she’s barely below an eight for the duration of the movie, and she appears in almost every scene), and what’s weirder is it actually works. It is a gutsy, sensitive, howlingly funny performance that feels both put on and genuine, much in the same way the idiosyncratic Bakker did.
“It was a rich basket of materials we were working with,” said screenwriter Abe Sylvia, who worked closely with Chastain as he wrote his script. “We had lots of conversations about tone in the direction and Tammy’s attitude in each and every scene,” he continued. “And what’s the best way to fully express what she’s going through. We always framed it with that in mind. The character first. You just get a very strong point of view about this woman was, and I think it shows in the performance.” Sylvia said he spent about four months researching before writing the script to flesh out the documentary’s source material. He read books and biographies but avoided tabloid reports “and those kinds of sources that would that would taint my mission to kind of get at the truth of the feelings.”
“It is very much her movie in a lot of ways,” director Michael Showalter told Jezebel. Showalter is known for his work in beloved comedy offerings like MTV’s The State and Hot Wet American Summer. He said directing someone like Chastain, who came attached to the project and with a vision, was often just a matter of editing—dial it down, bring it up.
Biopics are a dime a dozen and they frequently feel like cheats—a lot of spinning wheels and pretensions of prestige for films that don’t ultimately get at the root of their subjects’ emotional lives. For over-the-top subjects like Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker (played here by Andrew Garfield, also under a pile of prosthetics), the biopic feels like a perfect vehicle. So melodramatic was their rise to prominence and fall from grace that only a soap opera might encapsulate them better. Showalter noted that the format of the film shifts subtly as it goes: It starts as a standard biopic only to focus more and more on Tammy Faye’s interiority. “By the end of the movie, you’re with her completely inside her experience, hopefully,” he said.
Indeed, the movie is a trove of unexpected charms, much like its subject. In 1985, Bakker famously interviewed Steve Pieters, a gay man who had been diagnosed with AIDS. Her empathy and refusal to condemn his homosexuality won her a gay following (sometimes, especially in less accepting eras, it has taken little more than a pledge of allegiance to win over the gays, though Tammy Faye’s quirks certainly didn’t hurt, either). In a way, this biopic extends Bakker’s mission of compassion evident in the Pieters interview.
“I wanted to take another look at this person that everybody thought they knew, that everybody had an idea of,” said Sylvia. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions of how would come out, but I want to write her from a place of empathy and to not necessarily shy away from the darker side of the story and her degree of complicity in any of those aspects, but not come at it from a place of wanting to make fun of this woman, which I think is the knee jerk a lot of people have when you bring up her name.” Jim Bakker eventually went to prison for defrauding his congregation (the trial and sentencing are chronicled in Eyes by a montage of actual vintage news clips), and the pair were effectively ejected from their cable network, PTL, in the wake of news that Bakker had sexual contact with a woman named Jessica Hahn and then used church money to pay her off.
How much Tammy Faye knew about the misappropriation of funds remains a mystery. The movie doesn’t shy away from depicting her luxuriating in an upper-class lifestyle that her church bought her, but it also tells a familiar American Dream-building tale that makes it easy to root for the Bakkers’ prosperity. The movie features Jim and Tammy Faye insisting that God wants them to be wealthy and makes clear that wealth was coming from their audience of “partners,” whom they overpromised and underfed. The movie suggests that when Jim and Tammy Faye shared their personal triumphs and tribulations on air (the announcement of her pregnancy, her coming clean about infidelity), their phones would light up—a sort of precursor to oversharing for likes, though the Bakkers did so for cold hard cash.
Without its humor, The Eyes of Tammy Faye wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. Quotable one-liners abound (“I’m not a drug addict! I’m only addicted to Diet Coke!”), there’s a scene in which an Ativan-zonked Tammy Faye realizes on live television that the beach set she’s filming on is, in fact, a set, and there’s a particularly energetic rendition of Tammy Faye’s full-throated “Jesus Keeps Takin’ Me Higher And Higher (Disco Jesus),” complete with sequins and star wipes. The scene eliciting the biggest laugh at the premiere screening I attended this week featured a pregnant Tammy Faye’s water breaking while dry humping her music producer Gary S. Paxton (who in real life produced “Monster Mash”).
“I didn’t think of it as a comedy, per se,” said Showalter. “I sort of think everything is funny in a weird way. Even something that’s dramatic. The world is inherently funny in some respects. I felt like [the Bakkers’ story] fit my point of view.”
“You know, people are funny in life and she could crack a joke,” said Sylvia. “She would be funny without even trying, there was sometimes an obliviousness.” Sylvia cited Pedro Almodovar as his favorite filmmaker and said he admired the Spanish director’s multivalent approach to “get into melodrama and whimsy and humor and pathos to try to blend all of those things into sort of one cohesive story.” That’s what he channeled in his script.
There’s the inevitable question of this movie’s camp factor, its ability to be loved, per Susan Sontag’s notion of the sensibility, for its unnaturalness—its artifice and exaggeration. Discerning it here is dicey business. Camp can be fostered and pushed along by creators, though pure camp is accidental and counter to the ostensible intentions of authors. It bespeaks a lack of awareness for how something is coming off, and both Sylvia and Showalter knew the potential to stray into such territory.
“Jessica and I from the beginning said that we were going to be sincere and the feelings are going to be real,” said Sylvia. “It’s a testament to Jessica’s dexterity as an actor that it doesn’t become pure camp. Jessica was like, ‘This is a living, breathing human being, and I’m going to embody her.’ It’s not an impersonation, it’s an embodiment.”
“I mean, we certainly knew that there’s a campy quality to Tammy Faye and that that was how a lot of people saw her and had fun with her. And I don’t mind that,” said Showalter. “Like, I don’t think camp is bad, but the tone of the movie was never going to be about how over-the-top and gaudy they were in that campy sense. It was more to try to understand what these people are, who these people are. Because that’s what I’m so curious about, is how do you become someone like Tammy Faye? What is that? We chose more to go in the way of trying to ground it somehow.”
There are undeniable moments so extreme and played so straight that, in my experience, unintended laughter seems like the only response, like when Jim criticizes Tammy Faye’s “Betty Boop” voice and an injured-looking Tammy Faye responds in a deflated manner that reminds me of Jerri Blank, “I thought you liked Betty Boop.” And though I felt emotionally invested in the movie and that Chastain really did melt inextricably into the role, I still saw it mostly as a display of extreme human behavior. Having seen the 2000 doc several times, Tammy Faye had already won me over and little contained in this movie was news to me. It’s a very strange experience, to watch this thing and become so absorbed only to be jolted out time and time again by remembering that under those eyelashes and prosthetics is Jessica Chastain acting her ass off and often screaming her heart out. I mean, there she is, one of the most respected actors of her time, shriek-singing “Jesus Loves Me” at a puppet perched on her hand.
Like its subject, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is simultaneously earnest and artifice. It’s a warm embrace that leaves makeup on your collar. Camp is ultimately an act of discovery, a way of appreciation via a path not laid out by authors. In Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin summarizes critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of camp as an “open secret”: “To Sedgwick, a camp object asks ‘what if the right audience for this were exactly me?…And what if, furthermore, others whom I don’t know or recognize can see it from the same “perverse” angle?’” Chastain’s turned-up performance is wild enough to leave the audience a hell of a lot to work with. “I was scared the people were going to make fun of me,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And there’s going to be a lot to make fun of if I fail because it’s so out there. I’m swinging for the fences here.”
I wondered what it was like to experience this in real-time. How much did uncertainty define the filming of this movie and when did the people involve realize they nailed it? Showalter told me that he never believes that he nailed it, at least not before he is able to screen his movies before an audience.
“For me, it’s always this feeling as I’m watching it when we’re shooting, like: This feels good, this feels real, I’m moved by the performances and it looks interesting,” he said. “And you just kind of don’t know. It’s really weird.”