The week’s most exciting acting falls victim to the week’s most inexplicable miscalculation: Instead of recounting the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker as a tale of faith debased by greed, righteousness denied by lust, and piousness transfigured by mascara, Fall from Grace seeks to make the Bakkers. . .sympathetic. How extraordinarily dumb. And dull. And verging on the tragic, because Kevin Spacey as Jim and Bernadette Peters as Tammy are absolutely fabulous.
The movie they’re in is so petrified of offending religious viewers that it pulls back after showing us Jim’s adultery, Tammy’s pill-popping, and their ostentatious wealth and tries to turn them into, well, saints. Doesn’t NBC realize that what will offend truly religious people is the notion that these exposed hucksters should now be redeemed as movie-of-the-week victims?
So Fall from Grace squanders two exceptional performances. When it was first announced that Peters would play Tammy, you could hear foreheads being slapped all over America: ”Of course!” chagrined citizens yelled. ”She’ll be perfect! Why didn’t we notice the resemblance before?” Like Tammy, Peters is diminutive, zaftig, and possessed of a cooing, chatterbox voice.
But it’s not as if Peters just teased her hair and glued on a pair of extra-large eyelashes; she also has captured Tammy’s peculiar combination of hardness and vulnerability. Plus, Peters taught herself to cry just like Tammy when she wants those pledges to come pouring through the phone lines: Peters works her mouth into the shape of a bowtie and then her eyes let loose with the waterworks.
Playing Jim Bakker was in some ways an even tougher assignment, because Jim isn’t quite as much of a cartoonish exaggeration. But anyone who saw Spacey’s slit-eyed madman Mel Profitt in Wiseguy‘s most memorable story line knows what a leap it was for Spacey to go from pixilation there to piousness here. Spacey’s cheeks look Bakker-plump, and he has raised the pitch of his voice and roughened its timbre to arrive at a perfect version of Jim’s whining drone.
Peters and Spacey would be riveting, except for the fact that the script reduces the Bakkers to earnest hard workers who just, you know, got in over their heads. Even Jim’s furtive fling with Jessica Hahn is interpreted as something Jimbo had to do to relieve all that tension he was under.
Fall from Grace doesn’t deny the Bakkers’ improprieties, only tries to exonerate them. We see Jim taking those huge, tax-free salary ”bonuses” that helped convict him of fraud, but the movie takes care to balance this with scenes of Tammy hugging little old ladies visiting the Bakkers’ ”Christian theme park,” Heritage USA. We see the Bakkers driving around in limos, buying out stores and snapping orders to underlings, but we also hear them incessantly chanting, ”Praise the Lord!,” ”Praise Jesus!,” and ”Get right with God!” It’s all presented very solemnly, as if the Bakkers weren’t using Christ as a magnet to extract cash from their video parishioners.
We’re even supposed to be shaken when the Bakkers’ empire crumbles and they turn for help to the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul in a devastatingly accurate impersonation). Are the filmmakers kidding? Handing over their ministry to a guy like Falwell — who then bad-mouthed Jim on the set of Jim’s TV show, The PTL Club — was one of the funniest things the Bakkers ever did, a gratifyingly stupid mistake.
Fall from Grace could have been, at its most daring, an indictment of televangelism and, at the least, an entertaining hoot; instead, it’s a baleful drag with superlative acting.