By Morgan Roberts
When you watch “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (2021), the surface of the film is a biopic that aims to correct some of the wrongs society cast upon Tammy Faye Bakker. However the film, anchored by its core performance, does more than provide a Wikipedia interpretation of the truth; what it does is confront the very things Tammy Faye and many others have struggled with: faith.
Like some, I don’t subscribe to a religion. I was raised Methodist. And even though the last time I stepped into a church was almost a decade ago, I still remember all of the lyrics to “Lord I Lift Your Name on High.” When I look back on my upbringing in a church, it feels like a trauma, something that has scarred me. Yet, I am still fascinated by faith; giving your intrinsic beliefs to something greater than you, sometimes without the payoffs you hoped for, is a humbling way of existence.
So, when watching “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” I was truly astonished by Jessica Chastain’s work in the film. Sure, there is the physical transformation. The make-up and prosthetics to make Chastain look more like Bakker. And then there’s the voice. It’s high-pitched and seeping with a Minnesota accent. And while those parts of the performance lend to us believing in Chastain’s performance, she brought more to it than that. Chastain brought faith. Faith in Tammy Faye’s truth. Faith in the person. And faith in her complexity.
Chastain never paints Tammy Faye as a saint. There are times we see her complicit in wrongdoings. Tammy Faye would go on TV and ask people for money, believing she deserved to be rich. While she may not have known the figures, Tammy Faye certainly had some understanding that the money raised from The PTL Club was ensuring her luxurious lifestyle instead of going to real missions.
Yes. I believe everyone is deserving of unconditional love and it doesn’t mean you’re giving someone a pass to do terrible things — it means that I believe in forgiveness, that oftentimes meanness or aggression comes from someone’s own sadness or insecurity.Jessica Chastain in an interview with ScreenDaily
Yet, Tammy Faye was complicated that way. While money was a fuel for some actions, she was still a person who genuinely cared for others. She wanted to sing, and share praise through music. She discussed taboo subjects on a Christian network. And while the far-right Evangelical movement was working hard to demonize gay people and shun those with AIDS, Tammy Faye brought an AIDS patient onto her show. As depicted in the film, Tammy Faye had Christian pastor Steve Pieters appear on her show. She shows great interest in his well-being by finding the means to speak with him to save him from traveling. (At the time, Pieters was receiving chemotherapy treatment). Above everything else, Tammy Faye was focused on spreading the message to love one another. Not in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” sort of way. Instead, she talks about parents loving through anything, remarking that that’s what Jesus does. Loving through anything. She becomes emotional at the thought of fellow Christians shunning those who need love and faith the most. Comparing Chastain’s work to the actual video footage of Bakker, you sense the real compassion both women share. Just watching this interview with W Magazine, you get a glimpse at Chastain’s own attention and compassion given to Tammy Faye, something she was not really given in her life.
Even more importantly, Chastain’s performance highlights the struggle when it comes to faith. There are times when Tammy Faye feels isolated from God and isolated from those around her. We see her struggle to make connections. Chastain’s work highlights that faith and people are pretty much the same: both are complex, messy, and sometimes hold contradictions at the same time. In Genesis 1:27, it says “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” And I think that is why I find this performance so radical because it embodies that idea that people in all of their own imperfections were created in a divine and miraculous way. While I don’t have a religion, I do have faith in people. It’s hard to have faith in people. This film highlights that so well. It is hard to believe that the same person who brushes aside her husband’s indiscretions and joins him on a journey of exploitation, also gave voice to LGBTQ+ Christians and focused on loving people for who they are instead of damning them for their differences. Chastain saw all of that in Tammy Faye and chose to approach the film with the love she extended to others. Chastain demonstrates with her performance that whether faith is in an organized religion, or through a form of spirituality, or just in people, that faith is a daily commitment. It is tested every day but it is a conscious decision to still have faith in those around us.
This faith is encapsulated in the final scene of the film. Tammy Faye, after her rise and fall from grace, is asked to perform at Oral Roberts University. While there, she performs “The Battle of the Hymn Republic,” the song that was playing when she walked into her mother’s church as a child and dedicated herself to God. Even through all the hardships, even when feeling abandoned by God, Tammy Faye and her faith always returned. And so whether we subscribe to a religion, have more spiritual beliefs, or our own faith simply lies in people, it is making the concerted commitment to have faith in those beings.
To me, that is the greatest aspect of Chastain’s performance. We don’t know her own ideas about faith and spirituality, but I can see she does have faith; Chastain had faith in Tammy Faye Bakker. She had faith in her imperfections and her radical ideas. Her faith in Tammy Faye led her on a 15 year journey to get the financing for a film, make said film, and release it into the world during a period of strife due to the pandemic. Without Chastain’s faith in Tammy Faye, in her story, and her truth, we wouldn’t have this moving performance about a woman’s own struggle with faith. And we can certainly find credence in that.