TENDER MERCIES (1983) revisited

tender mercies Greetings again from the darkness. What a cinematic treat to revisit this movie on the big screen some 30 years after its release. Standing in stark contrast to the superhero and graphic novel special effects extravaganzas of today, this little film takes a slow, simmering approach as it deals with real emotions of life.

Robert Duvall won his only (so far) Oscar (he’s been nominated 6 times) for playing Mac Sledge, a divorced former C&W singer/songwriter who spends each day trying to kill the pain by draining bottles of booze. The similarities to Jeff Bridges’ 2009 film Crazy Heart are unmistakable, but this film is much quieter with emotions being relayed through the eyes and body language of the key characters.

Mac’s gradual path to redemption comes courtesy of war-widow Rosa Lee, played exceedingly well by Tess Harper (her first feature film). Rosa Lee runs a gas station/hotel while raising her young boy named Sonny (Allan Hubbard in his only screen appearance). As the story develops, we meet Mac’s ex-wife Dixie, played by a bombastic Betty Buckley (the mom from TV’s “Eight is Enough”, a Tony winner, the helpful teacher in the original Carrie) as she lives a life of luxury and insecurity courtesy of a career singing Mac’s songs. Their daughter is played by Ellen Barkin in only her second screen appearance (Diner, 1982). Dixie’s manager offers us a chance to see the always superb Wilford Brimley with his drawling charm.

The story was written by the remarkable Horton Foote (a native Texan), who also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Mr. Foote also won an Oscar for adapting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen, was nominated for The Trip to Bountiful, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and was nicknamed the “American Chekov”. His works always captured the essence of what makes people tick, and how they deal with adversity. He passed away in 2009 at age 92.

Australian director Bruce Beresford was coming off the masterful Breaker Morant (nominated for his screenplay) and was surprised to be chosen to direct his first American film. He would later go on to direct Driving Miss Daisy, winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Mr. Beresford is now in his 7th decade of film work spanning his 1959 short film and his TV mini-series “Bonnie & Clyde” from 2013.

This is such a no-frills, down-to-earth presentation that it’s easy to be tricked into thinking it’s a simple story about simple people. Instead, these are complicated folks leading complicated lives in a seemingly quiet manner. Mostly they are re-assembling the pieces as best they can … some are better at it than others. The core of these people is captured in Mac’s line: “I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will“.

***NOTE: Wilford Brimley, a former Marine in the Korean War, spent time as personal bodyguard to billionaire Howard Hughes.

***NOTE: Not to be outdone in reference to billionaires, Ellen Barkin spent 7 years married to Ron Perelman, billionaire Chairman of Revlon.  She has since resumed her career.

watch the original trailer:


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