Woman outside store: “Were you really Mac Sledge?”
Mac: “Yes ma’am, I guess I was.”
That exchange happens in “Tender Mercies” (1983), and like the film itself, it is a very understated moment. But then you start thinking about it, and the question resonates within you. We’re always evolving and (hopefully) becoming better versions of ourselves. Mac Sledge was a country singer, but he’s now content being a husband and a father, mostly keeping to himself. In the past year, we’ve all converted into quieter versions of whom we used to be. I for sure have spent more time being a husband, focusing inward and towards family. My iPhone keeps sending me daily photos from the past (I should deactivate that feature). Once in a while photos come through, and I do a double take. Who is that person that looks like me? Most importantly, where is he now?
I saw “Tender Mercies” a few times when it was first released and after Robert Duvall won a Best Actor Oscar for his delicate take on Mac Sledge. I was a young man and the depth of feelings conveyed in this gorgeous small film stirred me. Now it all seems so masterful and pertinent. Fresh out of high school, I didn’t fully grasp how things can change so quickly and so dramatically.
The first thing we see is Mac Sledge’s head hitting the ground. He’s passed out drunk on the floor, and uttering “Give me the bottle.” His unseen companion is heard slamming the door and driving away, leaving him behind. When he awakens, he comes to realize that he’s in a motel – appropriately called Mariposa (it means butterfly in Spanish and Sledge will go through a transformation). It’s a barren location – six miles outside of a small Texas town. The boarding place – with a gas pump – is the only building on the horizon, the skyline weighing down on it, and the constant howling of the wind. It is run by the young widow Rosa Lee who tends to it by herself with a young child, Sonny, by her side. “Did he pay for the room before he left?” he asks her. Broke, Mac proposes helping out with the fixing of screen doors and picking up the garbage from the roadside. “Alright, but there’s no drinking while you’re working here,” she tells him. Soon while tending her vegetable garden, he tells her he hasn’t drunk in two months and that it’s behind him. “Would you consider marrying me?” he proposes. “Yes, I think I might,” she answers.
And like that, Mac is reborn.
It is when a reporter tracks down Mac that Sally Mae finds out she’s married to a formerly famous country star. That’s all in the past for Mac and non-essential anymore. We find out his drinking became his undoing. He was married to the still famous Dixie Scott, and she has a court order forbidding him to see their spoiled teenage daughter. A lot is left unsaid and for us to figure out, but Dixie and Mac had a volatile relationship because of the alcohol. A young group of musicians show up once they’ve heard Mac Sledge is staying nearby and they’re looking to record one of his songs.
Steadfast Rosa Lee has provided a second chance at life for Mac. The Mariposa Motel is isolated from the rest of the world and becomes an island refuge for him. With her he goes to church where she sings. “I haven’t been baptized,” he admits to the pastor. Rosa Lee’s life has been in a form of stasis herself. She lost her young husband in Vietnam. “He was only a boy,” she shares with Sonny. “But I think he would have grown up to be a good man.” Mac reunites with his daughter and records a new song with the young band – but this heartfelt and gentle fable about transformation, rebirth and redemption, never goes the way you expect it. It’s riches are found in the most unexpected ways, in simple moments like Mac teaching his new stepson how to sing a song.
The screenplay – which won the Oscar for best original – was written by screenwriter and playwright Horton Foote. He’d won the Academy Award for his adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962). It was him who suggested the casting of a young Robert Duvall in his screen debut as Boo Radley. Foote won a belated 1995 Pullitzer Prize for his play “The Young Man from Atlanta.” Three Actors won Oscars acting on his screenplays: Besides Duvall, Gregory Peck won as Atticus Finch, and one of the greatest actresses ever, Geraldine Page, won Best Actress for his “Trip To Bountiful” (1985).
“Tender Mercies” is artfully directed by Australian Brian Beresford who’d previously helmed “Breaker Morant” (1980) and would go on to be responsible for the Oscar Best Picture Winner “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989).
Robert Duvall – who does his own singing – is almost unrecognizable as Mac. His acting is miraculous. The rebirth that we witness is all internal – and in his eyes. Tess Harper – in her debut – is picture perfect. A young Ellen Barkin plays the prodigal daughter and she makes a lasting impression in her couple of scenes.
Mac Sledge : “I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war, my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? See, I don’t trust happiness. I never did, I never will.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.
Written by Horton Foote
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Starring Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley and Ellen Barkin
About Cinematographer Russell Boyd
Russell Boyd born in Victoria in 1944, became keenly interested in photography as a young man, so upon leaving school, he sought and managed to get a job at Cinesound Newsreel in Melbourne, where he got great experience shooting news items, but after a few years moved to Channel 7 to shoot television news. He then joined Supreme Studios in Sydney to work on documentaries and television commercials. From there, Russell became one of the trailblazers of the Australian filmmaking renaissance, his credits include the seminal films “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “The Last Wave” and “Gallipoli” (for director Peter Weir), as well as “Between Wars” (for director Mike Thornhill), “The Man From Hong Kong” (director Brian Trenchard Smith), “Summer of Secrets” (director Jim Sharman) and “Break of Day” (director Ken Hannam). Bruce Beresford’s Oscar nominated “Tender Mercies,” Gillian Armstrong’s “Mrs Soffel” and “High Tide,” the record breaking “Crocodile Dundee I” and II , along with the US features “Dr Doolittle” (director Betty Thomas); “Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump” (director Ron Shelton), “Ghost Rider” (director Mark Steven Johnson). Highlights of Russell’s career include winning the Oscar for Cinematography at the 2004 Academy Awards for the Peter Weir feature “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” two ACS Milli Awards and named Australian Cinematographer of the Year for “Gallipoli” (1981) and “Between Wars” (1974), and won the BAFTA Award for “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in 1975. As of 2010, Russell has been Director of Photography on sixty plus feature film and television productions. In total Russell has won twelve major awards, including his Oscar, and been nominated on twelve other occasions for his outstanding cinematography. Recognised as one of Australia’s most outstanding cinematographers, Russell has been a member of the ACS since 1975, and was inducted into the ACS Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2004 he also became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. (cinematographer.org.au)
About Writer Horton Foote
Horton Foote, Jr., distinguished Texas dramatist, was born Albert Horton Foote, Jr., on March 14, 1916, in Wharton, Texas. Horton Foote was the son of Albert Horton Foote and Harriet Gautier Brooks Foote and a descendent of the first lieutenant governor of Texas, Albert Horton. He grew up in Wharton with his two brothers Tom Brooks and John Speed. Foote finished high school at age sixteen, then lived a year in Dallas with his grandmother while working as an usher at the Majestic Theater and taking elocution lessons. Foote had dreams of being an actor, so he moved to California and enrolled in acting school at Pasadena Playhouse in 1933. After completing acting school, Foote lived in New York City as a struggling thespian while taking acting classes from Tamara Daykarhanova, Andrius Jilinsky, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Vera Soloviova. Jilinsky, Soloviova, and Daykarhanova had studied with Constantin Stanislavsky and taught his “system” called “method acting.” Foote’s classmate Mary Hunter Wolf formed the American Actors Company to promote American talent in the theater and he joined in 1939. He began writing plays, the first of which was a one-act entitled Wharton Dance. His first three-act play was Texas Town. Only the Heart was Foote’s first play on Broadway at the Bijou Theatre in 1944. While working at Doubleday Book Store in Penn Station, he fell in love with Lillian Vallish and they married in 1945. After the American Actors Company disbanded in 1945, Foote became disappointed by the commercialism in post-World War II New York theater, so he and Lillian moved to Washington, D.C., and together they managed the acting school and theater productions at King-Smith School for the next four years. Foote returned to New York City in 1949 and was hired as a television writer for the children’s program “The Quaker Oats Show,” which debuted October 15, 1950. After fifty-four episodes, Foote focused on writing television plays. “The Trip to Bountiful” aired in 1953 on Goodyear Television Playhouse and was so well-received that it moved to Broadway and has been the most produced play of Horton Foote’s work. Twenty-four television plays written by Horton Foote aired between 1951 and 1964.
In 1955 Foote moved to Nyack, New York, and began raising a family with Lillian. Although he was brought up in the Methodist Church, he and Lillian converted to Christian Science shortly after his mother and sister converted in Texas. That same year Foote’s first screenwriting credit was the Cornel Wilde film, “Storm Fear.” “The Chase,” Foote’s only novel, was published in 1956 and was based on an earlier play. In 1961 Alan Pakula asked Foote to write the screenplay for Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The film was released a year later, and Foote won an Oscar for the screenplay. Baby the Rain Must Fall, starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick, premiered in 1965 and was filmed entirely in Columbia and Wharton, Texas. In the mid-1960s, Foote moved to New Boston, New Hampshire. He continued to write for Hollywood. His screenplay “Tomorrow,” based on a short story by William Faulkner, premiered to critical acclaim in 1972 and starred Robert Duvall. Next, Foote wrote the book for the musical adaptation of “Gone With the Wind,” which was produced in Los Angeles, London, and Dallas from 1973 to 1976. After Foote’s parents passed away in the mid-1970s, he gathered all the family papers from Wharton and poured over them in his New Hampshire home. The various stories and conflicts of his family inspired him to write “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” a collection of nine plays about three families in fictional Harrison, Texas. The plays in chronological order are “Roots in a Parched Ground” (1902); “Convicts” (1904); “Lily Dale” (1910); “The Widow Claire” (1912); “Courtship” (1915); “Valentine’s Day” (1917); “1918” (1918); “Cousins” (1925); and “The Death of Papa” (1928). HB Playhouse began producing the “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” plays in the late 1970s, and Foote moved back to New York City. HB Playhouse did not pay for plays, so Foote supported himself by writing for television again. Titles included Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person,” William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” and “Keeping On.” Foote continued to write and direct for the theater, but he also continued to make films. During the 1980s, Foote lived in his childhood Wharton home and filmed three of the “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” works (1918, “Courtship,” and “Valentine’s Day”), as well as “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Tender Mercies,” and “The Habitation of Dragons in Texas.” “Convicts,” the second work in “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” was released as a film in 1990 and Foote’s screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” was released in 1992. After his wife Lillian passed away in 1992, Foote lived with his daughter Hallie, and her husband in Pacific Palisades, California.
Foote continued to write for theater, television, and film for almost two decades while receiving critical acclaim for his body of work. Most notable are the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Young Man From Atlanta” (1995) and the Emmy-winning “Old Man,” based on a story by William Faulkner. In early 2009, Horton stayed in Hartford, Connecticut, with his daughter Hallie and her husband, Devon Abner, while he worked on completing the scripts for “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” for the Hartford Stage Company. Horton Foote passed away in his sleep on March 4, 2009 at the age of ninety-two. Unfortunately, he did not get to see his last two works completed. “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” was staged in its entirety at Hartford Stage Company in the 2009–10 season and moved to Signature Theater in New York in 2010. Foote’s screenplay for “Main Street,” a film starring Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom, was completed in 2010 and released in the fall of 2011. Frank Rich, the New York Times chief theater critic in the 1980s, described Foote as “a major American dramatist whose epic body of work recalls Chekhov in its quotidian comedy and heartbreak and Faulkner in its ability to make his own corner of America stand for the whole.” Foote’s theatrical honors include a Pulitzer Prize for “The Young Man From Atlanta” (1995); Lucille Lortel Awards for “The Orphans Home Cycle” (2010) and “The Trip to Bountiful” (2006); and an OBIE award for “Dividing the Estate” (2008). His screenwriting honors include Oscars for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “Tender Mercies” (1983); an Emmy for “Old Man” (1997); an Independent Spirit Award for “The Trip to Bountiful” (1986); and the Writers Guild of America awards for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1963) and “Tender Mercies” (1984). Foote was also a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Horton and Lillian Foote had four children: Barbara Hallie, Albert Horton Foote III, Walter, and Daisy. In 1992, DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University acquired Horton Foote’s extensive personal papers. The library held an exhibition on Foote’s career during the 2011 Horton Foote Festival in Dallas, Texas, which presented seventeen works by Horton Foote. (tshaonline.org)
About Director Bruce Beresford
Bruce Beresford was born in Sydney and graduated from Sydney University. He worked for the British Film Institute and directed his first feature film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, in the 1970s. Since then, he has directed over 25 more feature films, including Breaker Morant, The Getting of Wisdom, Don’s Party, The Club, Puberty Blues, Tender Mercies, Crimes of the Heart, Driving Miss Daisy, Bride of the Wind, Paradise Road, Black Robe and Mao’s Last Dancer. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the script of Breaker Morant and the direction of Tender Mercies. Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1990. Black Robe won the Canadian award for Best Film and Best Director in 1992. In 2009, his feature film Mao’s Last Dancer was nominated for nine AFI awards including Best Director. Bruce has also directed a number of operas, including Rigoletto for Los Angeles Opera, La Fanciulla del West for the Spoleto Festival, Elektra for State Opera of South Australia, Sweeney Todd for Portland Opera, The Crucible for Washington Opera, Cold Sassy Tree for Houston Grand Opera and A Streetcar Named Desire and Korngold’s Die tote Stadt for Opera Australia.