By John H. Foote
For the first time on Blu Ray, the gentle, sparse love story, and tale of redemption Tender Mercies comes to the small screens.
Like a well written country and western song, Tender Mercies is all about hurtin’ and living with the pain. Life deals out some harsh cards and it is how you live with the tragedies that defines you. Finding the strength to persevere, having people around you that love you, digging deep within yourself, and finding a reason to go on. Discovering the tender mercies of life is what sustains us, what carries us through the hurt.
In this truly independent film, the first to break through in mainstream American film, we have a film written by a Texan, the great Horton Foote, directed by an Aussie, Bruce Beresford, starring a fine American cast and made very cheaply. Embraced by small audiences and critics, it would go on to five Academy Award nominations and a slew of critics’ awards. Aided enormously by the country music industry, who gave the film their stamp of approval, the film received glowing endorsements from legends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Kenny Rogers.
Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) was once a famous country singer, at the very top of his profession, with hit records, money, a Grand Ol’ Opry regular, he was at the peak of the industry. Now -divorced, a drunk – he is at the bottom of a pit of despair of which he needs to climb out. Down and out, drunk in a roadside gas station motel, unable to pay for his room, he asks the young widow, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), about work and she gives him a job pumping gas, a room, food, and helping out on the condition he does not drink.
Throwing himself into the blue collar world, Mac works, he works hard and finds himself falling for the pretty young widow and her young son. They marry, and he settles into his new life, until a reporter shows up hoping to do a story on Sledge. It is here it becomes clear he was once a hugely famous country singer. Later asked if he was really Mac Sledge, he replies with sadness and a slight smile, “Well I guess I used to be.”
His presence is reported through the dusty, very small town and soon a group of young men come by hoping he might listen to them, even sing with them. Initially he resists but later decides to give it a try.
When his ex-wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) comes to town, he quietly goes into the show, but she sees him and frantically attacks him telling him to stay far from their daughter. He agrees, but his daughter comes to him, now 18, and he has not seen her since she was a baby. Awkwardly they talk, and just as awkwardly she leaves, not long after killed in a car accident after escaping the clutches of her mother. Mac goes to the funeral where he comforts his hysterical ex-wife, partnered in their grief over losing their daughter. While there he speaks with her manager who tells him the songs he previously gave him were very good, he had no right disparaging him before.
Wounded over his daughter, Sledge buys a bottle of whiskey, but pours it out, returning to Rosa Lee and her son, now Mac’s son, where he feels safe.
The film leaves us hanging as to whether Mac will sing again, whether his music can build a better life for he and his new family, but there is hope where there was not at the film’s beginning. Tender a Mercies is a quiet film, humanistic in that it quietly explores life, intimately, with great authenticity and a visceral, raw power.
Robert Duvall was by 1983 one of the most acclaimed actors in film, hailed by the New York Times as “The American Olivier” which he took exception too, not being a fan of Sir Laurence. What the writer was praising was Duvall’s inherent ability to slip under the skin of the characters he portrays, inhabiting them effortlessly. Olivier fooled critics into thinking he could do that, but I always saw the acting. With Duvall you do not. He is sublime as Sledge, a man wounded by life, and when given a second chance with Rosa Lee he embraces it, loving her with everything he has. But there is pain within him she will never understand, and she loves him enough to be silent about it. There is a weariness about him, something melancholy behind the eyes, except when he looks at Rosa Lee, or sings. Robert Duvall is gone; this is Mac Sledge we are watching. The transformation, however subtle, is quietly extraordinary.
Equally fine, earning high praise from Duvall, was young Tess Harper, a local Texas girl who settled into the part of Rosa Lee to perfection. She brought a real rural authenticity to the role and deserved to be a supporting actress nominee, but sadly missed out. In the plum role of Mac’s country superstar ex wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) was superb as a spoiled diva belting out the iconic tunes Mac wrote for her.
AWARDS IN 1983
At the end of 1983, Tender Mercies had come and gone, been out of theatres 10 months and had been released to cable and onto video. Both the Los Angeles Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle honoured Duvall with their Best Actor awards, which at once put the film into the year end awards race. He then won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor, and the Golden Globe.
Tender Mercies was surprisingly nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Actor, which had become a fore gone conclusion, but also Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Song for “Over You”. On Oscar night Duvall prevailed, winning his first Academy Award, while Horton Foote won the Screenplay award.
The film remains a classic of the decade, proof independent films could crack the Academy Awards and further proof audiences and critics were hungry for real stories about real people.
Duvall is unforgettable.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.