Tess Harper: The Way She Looks At Him

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.

Tess Harper’s face, as she looks up at her husband singing, is (for me, in this latest viewing) the most moving part of the entire movie. 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 that he was first drawn to. She can “take” him. She accepts him. He is who he is. 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 … well, I can’t even label it.

Love. Pride. Strength. Acceptance. Excitement. And maybe even a little understandable vanity … as in: That guy up there? That’s my husband.

It knocked my socks off.

The dream in life for me, so often, is 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. This is why I have 100% of the time fallen in love with artists. It has caused me a lot of heartache, but also given me so much joy. There has got to be a balance there somewhere, although balance is not my strong suit.

Tess Harper’s face captures it all in that last scene – and normally my focus has been on HIM when I watch that last scene. 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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7 Responses to Tess Harper: The Way She Looks At Him

  1. brendan says:

    Horton Freakin’ Foote. Genius.

  2. DBW says:

    Oh, I love this movie. “On the Wings of a Snow White Dove”–Duvall standing in front of the window singing that just about kills me every time I see it.

    Such a quietly powerful movie.

  3. phil says:

    You nailed it, Baby.
    (May I call you Baby just this once?)

    Harper is perfect.

    This movie also has my favorite marriage proposal scene of all time.

  4. mitchell says:

    one of my all time faves…betty buckley having a self-absorbed melt down is classic as well!

  5. Bud says:

    What a beautiful take. You’re such a romantic, Sheila. Oh, how I love reading you.

  6. Mark says:

    Yes, I know that “look”. I’ve both looked at someone “that way” and have actually received it as well. Unfortunately the person giving me that “look” wasn’t the same person “I” was looking at!

    Regardless, I think one of my great relationship epiphanies came with the realization that it wasn’t about learning to “accept” a persons character defects, but instead loving the person “because” of those imperfections!

  7. juhi says:

    as always, while the words continue to dance just a bit out of my reach, at the edge of my grasp, you grab them & articulate what i feel so beautifully. i love reading your writing.

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