After making his feature directing debut in 2005 with “The Baxter,” Michael directed “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” “The Big Sick” and “The Lovebirds,” each of which reflected at least parts of his feminist sensibility. But it’s brought to bear even more explicitly in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which stars Jessica Chastain as Bakker, who in 1989 became embroiled with her husband, Jim (Andrew Garfield), in financial and sexual scandals involving the couple’s Praise the Lord (PTL) Satellite Network and Heritage USA theme park. The film, which was adapted by screenwriter Abe Sylvia from Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” repositions Bakker less as a tabloid caricature and more as a woman trying to channel her own ambitions and desires.
The Washington Post brought Elaine and Michael Showalter together to talk about “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and how it reflects Michael’s own personal, ideological and creative evolution. Elaine joined from her home at Ingleside at Rock Creek in Northwest Washington; Michael joined from his home in Los Angeles.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Michael, you're 51. Did you grow up with Tammy Faye Bakker and the PTL scandal sort of floating around?
MS: Well, in the same way that everybody did, just in terms of that it was the big giant scandal that everybody was talking about. I remember seeing their show, just sort of the way you’d flip the channels and land on a TV show. Like you get stuck watching an infomercial for some crazy product and you were just sucked in by the production of it all, like QVC or something like that. I would kind of get sucked in by it because it was so unusual, but also kind of fun to watch in its own weird way.
Q: It was camp.
MS: Yeah, it was camp. I just remember it the way most people do, which is as this big giant scandal, like the ones with Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos. It was on this continuum of greed and excess. It was part of that ’80s thing.
Q: Elaine, Mike makes a good point about these women who became avatars for profligacy. Were you critiquing that trend at the time? What did you make of Tammy Faye?
ES: She was such a cartoon at that point. The mask of Tammy Faye was all over People magazine and all the tabloids. I just saw Mike’s movie, and one of the things I really love is that it begins with her trying to take off the makeup. And she can’t. And I thought, that’s it. I thought that was just such a wonderful metaphor for what happened to her. My main memory is when she became an advocate for gay men. That was where she registered for me.
Q: To me, this movie is so much about her ambition and what she needed to do to express it, because she was constantly being thwarted.
ES: And it’s so much about the period, the way you had to market yourself as a woman. And she had to do it through the medium of evangelical Christianity, which is a pretty tough call. But she wasn’t unusual. There were women on that circuit, and they had to dress a certain way with the big shoulder pads and the big hair, but she found the eyelash gimmick. I think the idea of the eyes is really interesting, too. Because she focused on the eyes. You know, the old cliche is that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. And it’s like, “Look close and you can see who I am. This is who I am.”
Q: "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" arrives at a time when we're having these major reappraisals of maligned female figures from the '80s, '90s and early Aughts: Britney Spears, Monica Lewinsky — Elaine, you and I met at a screening of "I, Tonya," about Tonya Harding. But Tammy Faye Bakker never really owned up to her part in the corruption behind the "prosperity gospel" she and her husband promoted. And despite her generosity toward the gay community and her work with AIDS patients, she never stopped considering homosexuality a sin. Are we in danger of pushing the pendulum too far and stripping these women of their own agency?
ES: It’s a good point. One of the things that I really liked when I first saw “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is that Mike doesn’t judge any of the characters. The director’s eye here is not, “I am so cynical and knowing and we all know how ridiculous this is.” I think that’s an important thing to do. There are movies that are obviously satiric, and they can be great. But I really enjoyed that sense of letting the characters be who they want to be. I think that’s the line. They’re not being valorized. Even with Jim Bakker, who was the much slimier character, there’s a sense that every time you see him, he’s not twirling the metaphorical mustache. He is who he is, and I think that adds depth to it.
Q: You wrote in "The Female Malady" that historically, psychiatric medicine was used to punish women who weren't toeing the patriarchal line, and that mental illness was a form of resistance to those oppressive structures. In the case of Tammy Faye and so many women like her, institutionalization turned into public humiliation.
ES: It’s a kind of martyrdom. There was a period when I wrote “The Female Malady” when French feminists were saying, ‘We are all hysterics.’ And I was saying, “I don’t want to march under that banner myself.” But the idea was: We are the rebels, we were once Freud’s patients, but now we’re not passive and vulnerable and being spoken for.
Q: Michael, did you grow up absorbing all these ideas? Were you a "Free to Be . . . You and Me" kid?
MS: Ideologically, yes, “Free to Be . . . You and Me” is completely ingrained into my brain. That was very much my favorite record as a young kid. I listened to it all the time. I just thought it was good music, I didn’t even know I was being imprinted. Growing up in a house where my mom is my mom and is talking every day about her work, her job, her interactions with other people, her opinions about x, y and z, and being very interested in what she had to say and her point of view, I think I unquestionably absorbed it. But there’s a little bit of confusion there. My mom never used “Men are chauvinist pigs” as a blanket statement, but that was floating around. Like, in the ’70s that idea that men are scum — which to a large extent they are — but it wasn’t like I was being emasculated on a daily basis or anything like that. But there was a healthy dose of “Men are scum.” There was a healthy dose of frustration with the kind of BS that you have to put up with, that on some level as a guy is confusing maybe, a little bit. You have to figure that out, how to blend the two together. That you agree and you see all of that, but you are not a woman experiencing that.
The other piece of it is, the #MeToo movement is so prevalent in my life right now. I remember Mom talking about being at Princeton or being a Rutgers and dealing with her faculty members or the administration or the students. Just the other day I was having a conversation with a production assistant on the show, and they feel very empowered to report behavior that they don’t feel is appropriate. It’s really inspiring that a PA on our show who graduated from college literally last year and in the pecking order is on the bottom of this gigantic huge machine, that she feels completely validated and supported in making it known to the people above her that there’s somebody who’s way higher up on the pecking order than she is who’s talking to her in a way she doesn’t think is appropriate. It’s amazing, and it’s amazing that that’s something that’s new.
Q: Michael, because of your personal history and the way you've internalized these values, are you functioning as an interlocutor with your male peers in Hollywood? Because I'm sure there are men in your cohort who aren't nearly as excited by these changes as you are.
MS: I feel like the ones who feel that way, the people who are most flagrantly causing the problems, don’t think that they’re doing anything wrong. And I’m guilty of many things that may not be harassment. But I’m a comedian. If I said every joke that popped into my head — and in the early ’90s, when we were doing our TV show on MTV, we did. We did say every joke that popped into our heads. And I was ‘woke’ then, too. I really was. I think my politics and my ideology were in the right place, but the culture was different.
Q: I may be projecting, but I have always detected a feminist strain in Michael's work. Elaine, how do you see your son's oeuvre?
ES: I remember when he was in high school and when he was in college, he was into everything. He was in a rap group, he was a cartoonist, he was doing cartoons for the Princeton University newspaper when he was in high school, he had a literary magazine, he was acting, just a million different things. But you could see that film was a major interest, and kind of incorporated all these things. And when he got started, from “Wet Hot” on, every now and then we would talk about something that was in the news, or some person I was interested in, and he would say, “Oh that’s a great story.” Like the life of Margaret Fuller, who was one of my great heroines and had an unbelievably dramatic life with an unbelievable narrative arc. And I’d say, “Oh, I wish somebody would make a movie about it.” And Mike would say, “Yeah, that would be great, but it isn’t going to be me.” And I would say, “Why?” He’d say, “I’m a comic actor and a comic director.” The real turning point was ‘Hello, My Name is Doris.” And that had a lot to do with Sally Field. Her character was somebody who was being played as this stock maiden lady in the office — kind of ditsy, kind of eccentric. By the middle of that movie, it takes an amazing turn where you really go into her life and it’s such a shift. I think every movie since then has become more and more confident and serious and conscious from the beginning.
MS: I would say that’s true. The script was written already. So the sort of deeper aspects of that movie were there already. But the thing with Sally Field was more of an instilling of confidence in me of being a director. It was more about encouraging me to take myself and my work more seriously and believe in myself.
ES: Your parents believed in you. I mean, we said that to you. But it doesn’t matter when you hear it from your mom and dad. When you hear it from Sally Field, it’s a whole different thing.
MS: Yes, it was “We believe in you.” But you guys aren’t capable of financing a movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you, I needed a job.
ES: I think in Mike’s movies, for me there’s usually a moment where a woman who has been a kind of comic asset, a minor character who’s been a comic figure, turns around and speaks to the camera. Like breaking the fourth wall. This person you’ve been watching and laughing at turns around and speaks. In “The Big Sick” it’s when one of the prospective brides who was being brought to dinner to audition for the role of good Muslim wife turns and speaks back and says, “How do you think this is for me?” I always thought that was such a great moment.
Q: Do you do that on purpose, Mike? Is that part of your feminist upbringing coming out in the work?
MS: Definitely. That moment was a moment that I felt really, really strongly about. In earlier drafts that’s not how it played out. Those women were more your romantic comedy stock characters. I made a whole movie about them, “The Baxter.” They were Baxters. The Baxter is a fatally flawed character and we laugh at their horribleness. They bray like a donkey when they laugh. Their jokes are corny. They don’t dress the right way. They’re mama’s boys. There’s always something about them that makes them the butt of the joke. And I think maybe what I like to do is try to find a way to subvert the trope. In “Wet Hot,” that’s all it was. Every single scene was subverting some trope.