This Standout TIFF Movie May Win Jessica Chastain Her First Oscar

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Welcome to “What’s Good,” a column where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the TV and film world.

What’s Good? Jessica Chastain in The Eyes Of Tammy Faye which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is expected to open in the U.K. later this year.

Who It’s Good For: If you’re a fan of Jessica Chastain, you know that the woman has range. She can go from running an illegal gambling ring in Molly’s Game to being the strong-willed supportive wife in A Most Violent Year to turning in an Oscar-nominated performance as a CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty. So, if you’re confident in Chastain’s competence, you won’t be surprised by the fact that she hits the mark yet again as flamboyant televangelist Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker).

This performance is for anyone who’s seen the documentary of the same name that the film is based on (seriously, the similarities are uncanny), or for anyone who is fascinated by the over-the-top, sanctimonious, sometimes unhinged world of televangelism. The film isn’t perfect — it glosses over the assault allegations laid against Tammy Faye’s ex-husband Jim (an eerily jubilant, with a side of simmering rage, portrayal by Andrew Garfield) and paints her as a naive bystander to her husband’s crimes who just got too caught up in her love of a man, Jesus, and designer minks. But you’re not going to want to miss Chastain and Garfield playing off of each other with pure camp and expert precision. They look like they are having fun and strike the perfect balance of finding humanity in their unsympathetic subjects and humour in their characters’ absurdities.

How Good Is She? Sure, she’s got the obscenely big hair, gaudy makeup, and prominent prosthetics, but aside from the look, Chastain is able to ooze Tammy Faye’s essence. And since the story is told from her point of view, we get to see the Tammy she wants the world to see — done up, devoted, and singing her little heart out — and the one behind the makeup: a vulnerable, charismatic entertainer who thrives on attention to hide her insecurities. And one who loved the spotlight and extravagance just as much as her husband. In her Vulture review of the film, writer Sarah Jones posits that “at best, Tammy relished her wealth without questioning its origins” and “at worst, Tammy was Jim’s equal partner in all things and actively helped him rob the very audience she craved.”

The film focuses on the former, and doesn’t complicate its protagonist too much. But as Jones notes, “Tammy was more than a caricature, but that doesn’t mean she was a heroine.” While the sanctification of Tammy Faye is one of the film’s major flaws, I don’t think it’s a knock on Chastain’s performance. In fact, the way Chastain plays certain scenes, she brings in the subtext of Tammy’s complexity even when the script doesn’t.

Take for example the scene in which Tammy Faye interviews Steve Pieters, a gay man living with AIDS, during her show The PTL Club in the ’80s. The segment, which actually happened, upsets the fire and brimstone Baptists that Jim is trying to impress. But Tammy Faye doesn’t care. She leads with her heart and feels her feelings, even when they get her in trouble. The film seems to be angling Tammy Faye as a gay icon (which she was in some ways), which feels like pandering to a 2021 audience, but Chastain plays her with such tenderness that it doesn’t come off as anything but genuine.

The physicality of the role, in which Chastain has to emote with pounds of prosthetics on, could hinder a lesser actor’s performance. Instead of it being a barrier to a good performance, it doesn’t seem like Chastain even notices the additions. She’s having too much fun to realise that she’s almost unrecognisable. That’s the crux of why Chastain is so good in this role. She, like Tammy Faye, never seems to take anything too seriously.

The film’s got I, Tonya’s cheekiness in the middle of tragedy, and scandal mixed with the scope of a sweeping biopic spanning decades. Watching Chastain in her element completely embodying this fascinating figure who people are either going to love or hate (even if you, like me, are too young to have formed any real opinion on Tammy during her heyday) or just love to hate, is damn fun. It’s the most fun I had in a screening this year at TIFF. We know that Toronto is where many Oscar campaigns begin and Chastain in The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is definitely a contender. Tammy Faye may not be worthy of a sanitised redemptive look at her sins, but Chastain deserves heaps of praise for portraying them.

What Else Is Good?
• Watching my Instagram Reels telling you What’s Good every week. Yes, that was a shameless plug but I feel no shame!
• My colleague and homegirl Ineye Komonibo’s piece on giving the new wave of Black pop stars some grace.
• Our new romance column called Love Like This?
• Lil Nas X. He’s just so so good.
• Ignoring the Emmys and checking out these picks by team Unbothered on the best TV shows of the year.
• As always, defunding the police.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

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