Superstar televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker was a queer ally; with her tattooed lip liner and drag queen makeup, she was a queer icon too. Disappointingly, Michael Showalter’s biopic couldn’t be straighter.
Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield star as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, a husband-and-wife duo whose cheery evangelical sermons and handmade puppets help them develop a cult following. By the mid 1970s, they’ve become successful enough to start their own TV network, a business venture that funds their opulent lifestyle. Their lakeside palace is a riot of cream, gold and fur. For Tammy Faye, it’s evidence that their piety has been rewarded – except Jim has been fudging the accounts.
The film smiles politely at Tammy Faye’s tacky aesthetic without ever fully embracing it, a bad-faith approach to its heroine. It reveres her feminist impulses – one scene sees her literally drag a seat up to a table of men – but then implies she had no agency when Jim drove them into debt. Her lust for money is glossed over; there is the sense that acknowledging her complicity could make her a less blandly likable heroine. The real Tammy Faye was more complex.
Chastain, ordinarily so good at projecting innocence, is unable to imbue the character with a sense of inner life. Beneath the prosthetics, she’s simply a collection of tics and mannerisms, all pawing hands and Betty Boop giggle.