Friday, April 1, 2022

The Eyes of Tammy Faye Are Upon You

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the film that just won Jessica Chastain a best-actress Oscar after two previous nominations, opens with a short close-up scene in which a cosmetologist, apparently trying to give the televangelist a new look, asks her to wipe away the mascara and lip-liner that have turned her middle-aged face into that of a glamorous gorgon.  She wipes—and nothing much happens. It seems most of that makeup is tattooed in place, or as she says, “permanent.” As she emphasizes, coyly, looking straight into the camera, “This is who I am.”

 The scene resonates because by the end of the film she’s re-assuring adoring TV audiences that “God loves you, just the way you are.” The irony, of course, is that Tammy Faye Bakker has—throughout the course of this movie—continually undergone physical change. Starting out as a perky but wholesome brunette who meets her future husband at a Bible college, she quickly metamorphoses into a platinum blonde and then a redhead. Her demure bob changes, over the decades, into a flip, then a cascade of curls, then a bouffant coif. God may love her as she is, but she herself has seemed much too restless to be satisfied with her appearance. Is she trying to please God? Her husband? Herself? The movie doesn’t venture a guess, but it’s worth some conjecture on the part of the audience.

 There’s one thing about Tammy Faye, though, that remains consistent throughout the film: the basic innocence of her nature. She seems to be someone who truly basks in the glow of God’s love. Not for her the secret cynicism and the overt ethical lapses of her husband, played with smarmy intensity by the ubiquitous Andrew Garfield (so good as a striving young musical theatre guy in tick, tick . . . BOOM!) Much of Tammy Faye’s posthumous legend has evolved out of the gratitude of the gay community because she had embraced AIDS victims in a way that no other evangelical would even consider doing. Chastain—who earned her Oscar because, despite all of her character’s physical permutations, she managed to hold onto the purity of Tammy Faye’s spirit—alluded in her acceptance speech to this all-embracing love.

 I was impressed by Chastain’s deeply felt performance, which hardly means that I loved this movie. As I was watching it, the film that came to mind was another flamboyant but true story, that of Patrizia Reggiani, played by Lady Gaga, who plots the murder of her fashion tycoon husband in House of Gucci. Milan’s high-fashion circles would seem to have little in common with the evangelical world generally linked to the American South, but both are over-the-top environments prone to heightened emotions, dark deeds, outrageous clothing, and strained accents. In both films we leap rather breathlessly from place to place and from era to era, seeing how characters evolve from appealing to appalling. At one point Patrizia and Tammy Faye even show up in similar all-white winter outfits, complete with poufy, furry hats. You’d think maybe they were sisters under the skin.

 But though I found I had little patience for either film, I cannot equate Tammy Faye with the eager, ambitious Reggiani. Lady Gaga was fun to watch for a while, but her greed was ultimately a turn-off. Not so, Tammy Faye, whose final triumphant scene, belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in front of a mesmerized Christian audience, seems earned. Despite the clown makeup, I find I have new respect for someone who had always seemed to me the butt of a bad joke.

Poster for the 2000 documentary, made by two gay filmmakers, that influenced the current film


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