In his memoir, Room to Dream, Lynch wrote that he was sent the film’s script while he was looking for a project to serve as his follow-up to The Elephant Man. Lynch wrote that he liked the script, which was written by Horton Foote (who had previously won an Oscar for adapted To Kill A Mockingbird), but that Lynch also felt that it just wasn’t the right project for him at the time. Tender Mercies was eventually directed by Bruce Beresford and Lynch mentioned that he felt that Beresford did a “brilliant” job.
After I posted the article, it occurred to me that Tender Mercies is not a film that’s as well-known as it deserves to be. It received five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Robert Duvall won his first (and, to date, only) Oscar for playing the lead role. It’s an acclaimed film but it also plays it in a rather low-key style, particularly when compared to some of the other films that were released in the early 80s. (1983 may have been the year of Tender Mercies but it was also the year of Scarface, Flashdance, Return of the Jedi, and Risky Business.) As such, it’s a film that’s been a bit overshadowed over the years.
Tender Mercies takes place in rural Texas. Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a former country-western star whose career has collapsed due to his alcoholism and his own self-destructive behavior. One morning, a hungover Mac wakes up in a roadside motel. Not having any money on him, Mac asks the motel’s owner — Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), who lost her husband in Vietnam — if he can work at the motel in return for a room. Rosa Lee agrees, on the condition that Mac not drink while he’s working.
As the days pass, Mac and Rosa Lee grow closer and Mac becomes a surrogate father to Rosa Lee’s young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Eventually, Mac and Rosa Lee marry and Mac becomes an accepted member of the community. However, Mac remains troubled. His ex-wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley), has built a career on singing the songs that he wrote for her but she refuses to consider anything new that he’s written. His teenage daughter (Ellen Barkin) stops by the motel and announces that she’s running away to get married. There’s tragedy but there’s also hope and forgiveness.
Tender Mercies is a simple but affecting film about a good man who is struggling to deal with the fact that he was once a very bad man. What makes Tender Mercies interesting is what doesn’t happen. The first time I saw it, I spent the entire movie expecting Mac to fall off the wagon and break everyone’s heart. Instead, Mac manages to keep his promise to his new family but what he discovers is that being sober doesn’t automatically exempt one from pain or guilt. He still has to deal with sadness and disappointment but now, he has to do it without using alcohol as a crutch. Instead of getting his strength from booze, he now gets it from love.
It’s a wonderfully sweet movie, featuring naturalistic performances from Harper, Hubbard, and especially Robert Duvall. It seem appropriate that, after making his film debut as Boo Radley in a film written by Horton Foote, Duvall would win his first Oscar for another film written by Foote. Duvall plays Mac as a plain-spoken and weary soul who is still just enough of a romantic to find some sort of redemption in the world. It’s a great performance and it’s a good film and I’d suggest checking it out if you ever need a good cry.