The superlative "Tender Mercies," which opened Friday at the Fine Arts,
provides the other half of a bracket in the proud career of Robert
Duvall. Eleven years ago, Duvall made "Tomorrow," directed by Joseph
Anthony and adapted from William Faulkner's "Knight's Gambit" by Horton
Foote, not coincidentally the screenwriter of "Tender Mercies." A lot
of people, Duvall included, think that "Tomorrow" was the actor's best
work in his more than 30 films.
About 185 people in the United States saw "Tomorrow," which was spottily released. A hundred of those must have been critics -- never has a performance been so fiercely championed and so little seen by the moviegoing public.
In it, Duvall played Jackson Fentry, a Southern dirt farmer, inarticulate to the point of strangulation. He takes in a frail, pregnant country women (Olga Bellin), who has collapsed on the road by his shack. He nurses her, almost wordlessly, through the last months of her pregnancy, insists that they have a last-minute marriage ceremony (although she is still married to the man who threw her out), then raises her baby son with a fierce and amazing protectiveness after the woman's death in childbirth.
To those who have seen "Tomorrow," the sequence in which the little boy, now about 7, is taken from Fentry forever by the boy's brutish uncles remains one of the most wrenching sequences in film.
What "Tender Mercies" contains, under Australian director Bruce Beresford's fine direction and with Foote's lean, pure screenplay, is Duvall's other best performance. His Mac Sledge is fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jackson Fentry as a work of great simplicity, dignity and insight.
Besides their rural Southern roots, the two characters share another common trait: They are capable of an extraordinary love. Fentry's is for the child, whom he names Jackson 'n' Longstreet, after the two generals his own daddy fought under. He is the child's whole world and the boy is his, and Fentry carries him with him as a baby even while he picks cotton in the fields.
Mac Sledge's love is for the calm, remarkable young Vietnam War widow he marries (Tess Harper in a quiet, hauntingly beautiful debut) and for her little boy (Allan Hubbard, equally remarkable), and for the world of music itself. He has had another passion, alcohol. It ruined his last marriage and almost killed him, and in cutting it out he's also severed any connection with his past life. That included a successful country-singer wife, still embittered by her years with him, and their teen-age daughter, whom he has not been allowed to see since the divorce. But Sledge has also cut himself off from his deepest means of expression, writing and singing his songs.
We see just the place music has in his life as Mac drives to Austin to one of his ex-wife's concerts and sits somberly in the audience, listening to her do a slickly produced, empty version of his love songs. We have already sensed the difference in the two. Dixie (superbly played by Betty Buckley) is the ultimate professional country entertainer. She gives the people a show; costumes; wigs, standard patter and a genuinely fine voice. Fine and just slightly hard. Mac Sledge, you suspect, simply stood there and sang his songs as he felt them.
And Duvall's face in this one short scene is a mirror of all these elements, pride at his songs, disdain for what is happening to them, and ultimately, pain because he believes he has lost his gift -- or destroyed it.
Impacted emotion, the aborted gesture of love, these qualities are further links between Jackson Fentry and Mac Sledge. They may also be qualities we think of as Duvall's own, because he has done them so well and so frequently. What writer David Thomson so perceptively refers to as "a vein of troubled loneliness that testifies to the staring severity of his face" marked many of the roles of Duvall's first 10 years. They were frequently regional parts, and not uncommonly losers or outsiders, beginning with the wordless Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," or Janice Rule's hapless husband in "The Chase." (To complete the circle begun in their Neighborhood Theater days, Horton Foote was author of both those screenplays.)
It can't be said that "Tender Mercies" expands Duvall's range, but it deepens and reinforces his strengths, which are unique in American films. To call Duvall the American Olivier, which has been done, may be a little grandiloquent unless what is meant is Olivier's (hopeless) desire to disappear entirely inside a wide range of characters. Duvall hasn't the Olivier magnetism, nor the Olivier theatricality, and he has rarely been allowed the full range of roles given Olivier.
For one thing, directors have rarely used Duvall for characters with a wide streaks of humor in their makeup. Drollness, yes; you think here of his Dr. Watson in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" or the first few moments of the motorcycle cop in "The Rain People," grandstanding to catch Shirley Knight's attention. And mistakenly, few film directors have considered him for roles with much sensuality (except possibly as the outsider in George Lucas' "THX-1138"), a strange omission considering his intensity. "M*A*S*H's" lustful Major Burns was also a religious fanatic and the price this comedy exacted for his sensuality was a straitjacket.
But strength, intelligence, introspection, tight control, a faintly Messianic quality ("Apocalypse Now," "The Great Santini") and , of course, absolute dependability have been Duvall's hallmarks; what Thomson calls his quality as "the perfect shortstop amongst a team of personality pitchers." The most outstanding example of this is his many-layered performance as Tom Hagen, the self-effacing consigliere of "Godfathers I and II," whom Duvall himself had described as "a millionaire gofer."
Now, suddenly, we have another side to Duvall, a rebuttal to his supposedly missing qualities of humor and tenderness. He has directed and written a richly comic, eccentric, affectionate and slightly frightening film, "Angelo, My Love," opening in New York in mid-April.
The film grew from a Duvall habit of vacuuming-up details of character around him. In 1977, at 71st Street and Columbus Avenue, he overheard an impassioned sentence from a lover to his lady. "Patricia, if you don't love me no more, I'm gonna move out to Cicinnati." What caught Duvall was that Angelo, the lover, was a 7-year-old Gypsy boy who probably came up to 20-year-old Patricia's belt-buckle. Nevertheless the macho intensity behind the sentence was bizarrely real.
With that moment as his starting point, Duvall plunged into the world that is forever them vs. us, the world of Gypsies vs. gadjos. He has come back six years later with this devilishly fascinating entertainment. It is close to cinema verite except that Duvall created a plot and a script. But none of the Gypsies could read, so most of the film was a sort of free-form improvisation.
No small part of "Angelo, My Love's" interest is in considering that Angelo, a hot, lying, funny, intuitively perceptive and absolutely amoral little street Adonis with smudgy, soulful eyes, is the polar opposite of every character Duvall has ever played or every conservative value Duvall has ever publicly espoused.
The film is compelling. Where it feels dangerous is watching Duvall lose some of his film maker's objectivity. And that may be because simply being around Angelo has the fascination of an interview with someone from another planet--a seductive, deeply disturbing alien raised in an entirely foreign moral code.(The film is actually Duvall's second as a director. The first was a critically well-received but little-known documentary, "We Are Not the Jet Set" in 1977, about a Nebraska rodeo family.)
There are still not enough demands on Duvall's range. He may indeed be, as another critic has suggested, the best we have working in American films today. If so, we might hope that "Tender Mercies" might make his human and tender side obvious to writers and directors who may not have seen just those qualities in "Tomorrow" 11 years earlier.
Thanks to Jamaica for sending this article.