TORONTO — Another title for the movie “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” could be “Behind the Mascara.”
Throughout the enlightening biopic about husband-and-wife televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, which premiered Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tammy Faye’s makeup gets thicker and thicker as the years go by.
After a while the coverup, rouge and mile-long eyelashes are no longer beauty enhancements, but a protective shield against the reality of her crumbling life.
The garish eighties give way to the drab, T-shirt-and-jeans nineties and, in the end, the bronzed woman looks like… well, let’s just say she looks like somebody who’s never cracked the spine of a bible before.
Tammy Faye, to say the least, was one of a kind.
As portrayed by a shape-shifting Jessica Chastain, the larger-than-life icon is humanized, but only slightly. We come away with the distinct impression that Tammy Faye the person and Tammy Faye the personality merged at an early age. The darkness — brought on by infidelity, pills, her husbands’ jealousy and her mother’s (Cherry Jones) displeasure — stewed, but she rarely let it scream.
Chastain’s performance, which should net her an Oscar nomination, is kind but warped, ambitious but subservient, self-loving and self-loathing. Underneath the surface is a truckload of complexity, carefully concealed by a costume. Just like Tammy Faye. And Chastain has got that freaky giggle down. She’s a marvel.
The actress is the showpiece of director Michael Showalter’s film that takes us from her Minnesota childhood when she spoke in tongues in church to meeting charismatic Jim (Andrew Garfield) in bible school. The two begin dating and get married right away, not content with PG over-the-clothes action. Soon they proclaim they’ve been called by God to preach his word on the road. With puppets.
The leading TV preacher of the day, Pat Robertson, catches wind of their kiddie act and soon they land their own popular family show on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Jim, out for himself, finagles an upgrade and becomes the first host of the more mature “700 Club.”
That’s when the light of God loses its luster to the sparkle of fame. The hungry couple starts their own competing network PTL (Praise the Lord), which buys them an extravagant waterfront house by unethically plundering the donations of viewers. Every time somebody asks how they paid for such an opulent property, they say “God is good!”
Oops. They meant “fraud is good”!
The “secular news media” catches up to their scheme, the facade cracks and their careers are over.
What separates “Eyes of Tammy Faye” from the tidal wave of true-story movies we get every year — typically about actors, musicians and politicians — is the the pure outlandishness of its subjects. The Bakkers were like the Osmonds meets Pee Wee meets Sunday school. Today we simply don’t allow people like them to be famous. While I wish Showalter’s film had gone deeper, their road to stardom alone is fascinating.
Also worth another look is how the woman sought to mix contemporary issues — feminism, AIDS — into what used to be a fire-and-brimstone gig. Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) the film claims, hated her compassionate “God loves everybody” stance and tried to bring her down for it.
While he’s overshadowed by Chastain, Garfield is doing strong work as Jim, who’s still alive and 81 today. The actor brings his Spidey charm to the role and blends it with the preacher’s cruel, vindictive, envious streak. The movie suggests the old gay allegations against Jim might be true (he’s denied it), but falls just short of doing so. Nobody makes a movie hoping to get sued.
Tammy Faye died in 2007. Chastain’s revelation of a performance will give her new life — and the voice she never had.