Near the end of Tender Mercies, Mac Sledge (played by Robert Duvall) plays with a new band of youngsters at a local dance, and it is his comeback, albeit a small one, but things have already started moving in the direction of him playing music again. It has been a long hard road for him, alcoholism, divorce, not being able to see his daughter for 20 years or so. He has married Rosa Lee, a young widow who runs a windy motel on a deserted highway. She has a young son. Her husband had been killed in Vietnam. Tess Harper plays Rosa. Watching the film yet again recently made me think deeply about Tess Harper (it was so nice to see her again, even in such a small part, in No Country For Old Men) – and how that film, as effective as Duvall is, wouldn’t work without her. It is the opposite of a “star” performance. She IS that woman. She is a good Christian woman, struggling along on her own, trying to make the best of it, and Mac Sledge was not something she was looking for. But she takes him on, tormented past and all. It is a beautiful performance, one very dear to my heart. I just learned that this was one of my grandmother’s favorite movies (my mom’s mother), and that makes me just love it even more. I watched it, and I felt closer to my grandmother in my heart.
And at this country dance, with Robert Duvall on stage, singing and performing, Tess Harper sits at a table, with her son, watching. This is her first time seeing him perform. She looks up at him, and the camera keeps going to her through the scene. The scene is good because of all that has gone before, and how much we have come to care about Mac Sledge. Duvall lets him be complex, quiet, alone with his thoughts, suddenly frustrated, flawed … this is a man who has to take ownership of the fact that the wreckage of his life is pretty much his own fault. No passing the buck. His devotion to Christ, and his new-found love for Rosa and her son, has certainly helped him do that. There may be no second acts in American life, but there can be redemption. Personal redemption.
But one of the ways we can see all that is by looking at Tess Harper’s face, as she looks up at her husband singing. It is an example of how often the great performances are given to them by their co-stars. Duvall cannot create that alone. As she looks up at him, she’s not just beaming with pride, although there is that there as well. The expression on her face changes, subtly, each time we see her. Sometimes she seems to have gone quiet, still, with a pool of calmness in her, the very calmness he was first drawn to. She can “take” him. She accepts him. She does not grasp him too hard. She welcomes his estranged daughter into her life. She doesn’t want him getting too close to his ex-wife – she’s human enough for that – but she takes the man as he stands.
And yet there he is, onstage, doing what he was born to do, and it is as though he has become MORE in her eyes. She sees his talent, his gift, and also the possibility that he may be about to accept it into his heart again. She doesn’t cry, but Tess Harper’s face is filled with so many things, a lifetime of things.
Love. Pride. Strength. Acceptance. Excitement. And maybe even a little understandable vanity … as in: That guy up there? That’s my husband.
The dream in life for me has often been to have someone look at me like that. Love me like that. Wouldn’t that be something.
But in this last viewing, it changed. It became even more powerful. What I felt was how much I want to look at someone like that. It isn’t just about love. It is about admiring the work that they do, separately from you. There is heartache in such a love, but also joy, a kind of joy that is unique.
Normally my focus has been on HIM when I have watched that last scene of Tender Mercies. I had somehow missed the strength and power and beauty of what SHE is doing.
I love that my grandmother loved this movie.