True crime in primetime: Tarnished Angel
What possessed me to tune in for (nearly) the full four hours of SMALL SACRIFICES, the forgone-conclusion 1989 telefilm ‘based on a true story?’ I have to say, Farrah hooked me.
America’s favorite 1970s Angel may have already achieved ‘legitimate actor’ status with her abuse victim roles in the more-famous The Burning Bed and Extremities, but as Diane Downs, the troubled Oregon mother and seducer, she really rises to the occasion - stringing the audience along through her continual denials to herself and her accusers that she attacked and killed her own children.
The film follows the DA (familiar John Shea) as he persistently pursues his investigation of that night that Diane claimed a ‘bushy-headed stranger’ attacked her family in her car and killed one of her children. The evidence just doesn’t add up, and Shea must unravel the actual events of that night from scattered clues, Downs’ now shocked-mute witness daughter and from Diane’s own incriminating behavior.
There are a few too many “I think she’s about to talk!” scenes with the daughter (Perkins), but meanwhile we get to see Diane’s past and present exploits. After her marriage to an abusive drunk (check!) falls apart, she falls in love with married mechanic Lew Lewiston (O’Neal, her real-life longtime partner), tattooing his name on her back and forming an obsession that inspires her to madness. See- Lew doesn’t want to have kids, so in her mind she was proving her fidelity to her lifetime love by ridding herself of her ‘baggage.’ Lew helps the investigation, bugging her increasingly crazed calls and talking to the DA. Diane, a postal worker (ha ha), becomes a master manipulator of the media circus surrounding her, playing to the camera and the audience. She forms a new ‘fatal attraction’ with a classical professor just to get pregnant – the jury loves that!
The miniseries resolves in a tension-filled courtroom drama in which Shea pushes Diane to the brink, forcing the truth out. It doesn’t start out well for her, as she begins tapping her fingers to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf,” seemingly oblivious to the gravity of the situation. It turns out the song was playing on her car stereo when she methodically stepped out to remove a gun from her trunk and turn it on her kids. Shea elicits the mute child to testify against mom, builds a nifty scale courtroom model of the car interior (complete w/dummies!) to dramatize the events, and the jury is won over.
Farrah goes beyond the standard ‘pretty victim’ to show us the slide of a master (self) deceiver into madness, the public and her children mere pawns in the game. SMALL SACRIFICES is a worthy addition to the True Crime in Prime Time canon. Goodnight, sweet Angel.