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Tender Mercies (1983)

May 30th, 2007 · 2 Comments

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Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) wakes up on the floor of a motel somewhere between Austin and Dallas. His drinking buddy has left him broke, but Mac asks the single mother who owns the motel/gas station – Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) – if he can work off his bill. She agrees, as long as he doesn’t do any drinking. Mac sobers up, stays on and eventually, the couple marries.

One day, a reporter shows up looking for Mac Sledge the singer. Mac was once married to Dixie Scott, who rose to fame and fortune singing a song Mac wrote for her. Mac turns down the interview, but starts playing guitar again. A struggling band stop by to pay their respects, and ask Mac if he’s ever going to perform again. “I’m not gonna start singin’ again, son. I’ve lost it.”

Mac goes to see Dixie (Betty Buckley) perform, hoping she’ll record a song he wrote for her. Her manager Harry (Wilford Brimley) agrees to give it to her, but as soon as she sees Mac, Dixie warns him to stay away from their daughter. “All she remembers about you is a mean drunk tryin’ to beat up her mama.” Harry later tells Mac that Dixie wouldn’t do his song even if it were good, which in his opinion, it isn’t.

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Rosa Lee likes it, as do the boys in the band, who find out about the song and ask Mac if he’ll not only let them perform it, but record it with them so they can get airplay. He eventually agrees. Mac’s 18-year-old daughter (Ellen Barkin) shows up and is eager to get to know her father, but just when things seem to be going pretty well for a change, life takes another turn on Mac.

Screenwriter and playwright Horton Foote was living in New Hampshire, working on his The Orphan’s Home series of plays, and needed money. His agent convinced him to do something he never did, pitch an idea to the film studios, any idea. Foote had a nephew in a country western band, and his rejections as a musician struck a chord with Foote’s experiences being rejected as an actor.

Foote’s pitch made it to production chief Gareth Wigan at Fox, who liked it, but suggested there be an older character in there somewhere. Wigan soon left Fox with Alan Ladd Jr. to form their own company, but Foote wrote the screenplay on spec. Once finished, he thought it would make a wonderful part for Robert Duvall, who had made his film debut in Foote’s adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird almost twenty years earlier.

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Duvall agreed to play Mac Sledge, but director after director passed on the script. Foote was a fan of the Australian film Breaker Morant directed by Bruce Beresford, and though he didn’t think he’d do it, Foote sent the script to him. Beresford only got halfway through and agreed to direct, on the condition he got along with the writer. Foote was on the set every day of filming in the towns of Palmer and Waxahachie.

Tender Mercies features one of the five greatest performances Duvall has ever devoted to film, but that said, there’s not an overplayed emotion, speech or hokey reconciliation in the whole deal. It’s as underplayed as the language and people of Texas that Foote knows so well. As a film about music, creativity and redemption, it ranks with the best ever made.

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. After only being nominated for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini, Duvall won the Oscar for Best Actor, while Horton Foote won for Best Original Screenplay. Some might consider this melancholy, but I found Tender Mercies uplifting. The story unfolds as purely as do the best written country western songs.

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goatdog’s movies gives Tender Mercies only 2 goats, saying “everything is so toned-down that it’s toneless.”

Nick’s Flicks Picks is even less sympathetic, saying “This is one script that isn’t doing anything or going anywhere.”

“One of the things about this movie I love is how simple it is. No special effects, no flashy sets or costumes, just a rock solid movie with a great cast and story,” says DVD Authority.

Tags: Father/daughter relationship · Midlife crisis · Music · Shot In Texas · Small town

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jfrancishill // May 12, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Poetry and love and tender mercies are the
    materials life is made of. Small wonder they
    happen in Texxas.

  • 2 jwt // Aug 21, 2008 at 8:17 am

    this is one of the finest movies of all time, imo. fantastic script and acting, that progresses the movie right along before you know what’s happening. The dialogue is perfect, and understated. Texas was nailed.

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