Happy Birthday, Tess Harper

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.

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12 Responses to Happy Birthday, Tess Harper

  1. DBW says:

    Love this movie. How cool that your grandmother loved it. There is a quiet, real decency at the core of this movie that gets me every time I see it. It’s great that Bruce Beresford had the confidence in his actors and material to just let it be what it is. There aren’t any of those typical scenes trying to explain everything to the viewer, and there are bunches of quiet little scenes that tell you so much. I have said this here before, but the scene where Duvall sings “On the wings of a snow white dove” while standing at the window(right after he told his daughter he didn’t know the song she was remembering)just kills me–kills me. It brings up things in me–some of which I don’t really know what they are, but it’s not a manipulated emotion–it’s something in my past or genetics.

  2. One of my favorite Tess Harper moments is in Crimes of the Heart, when one of the sisters (bless me, I can’t remember which) comes after Chick with the broom, and Tess Harper is so utterly shocked and surprised. Surprise is impossible to “act;” obviously the actor knows what’s coming, but in that moment Harper is completely astounded that it is happening. She simply can’t believe it. I crack up whenever I see it.

    You often write about the still moments, and this is a flashy moment, but oh, I love it.

    • sheila says:

      Venetian Blond – you have made me want to see it again! It’s been years. I still remember her wrenching on her panty hose while sitting in the kitchen and she makes it into this highly comedic character moment. She can barely get them on, but dammit, she keeps shoving her legs into those hose. She’s so great!

  3. Dg says:

    Great post….and great comment DBW.

  4. bill says:

    this is such a beautiful film. One of my favorites. You’ve captured it perfectly friend.

  5. sheila says:

    DBW – It’s still amazing to me just how much silence there is in this movie. It’s amazing they got away with it. The vast silences are FULL, not empty. Leaves so much room for emotion to come up in the viewer – yes, you’re right, nothing manipulated. Totally organic.

  6. Robert says:

    A favorite moment in one of my favorite movies is the garden scene. So raw, honest, tragic — and… WAY over there! Mac needs an embrace so badly, but we’re nowhere near close enough to offer it. I know the close up I want so badly would have destroyed the beautiful melancholy of the moment. The distance frustrates my need to be near a character I’m completely invested in. It’s powerful and pure audience participation, and Beresford is smart to keep the moment at a painful distance. But I still curse him every time I watch it!

  7. Sounds like I just found the next movie to put on my library queue. And since any attempt to add to what you just wrote will break the spell, I’ll just say that I agree. :-)

  8. sheila says:

    Greg – have you not seen Tender Mercies? You are in for such a treat.

  9. Sheila-there are so many movies out there that I want to see but haven’t seen yet. Tender Mercies is one of them, and thanks to you, I’ve now bumped it to the top of my list. :-)

  10. sheila says:

    I’m so excited for you. Horton Foote screenplay, spare and raw, amazing long stretches of silence, simple and human acting. American classic – excited you get to see it for the first time. Beautiful beautiful images, too.

  11. phil says:

    Actually, this movie has one of my favorite screen kisses.
    And there’s just the one Tender kiss.
    I love the marriage proposal scene.


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