Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tender Mercies

From Roger Ebert's Great Movies Review.

"Tender Mercies" won Robert Duvall his only Academy Award in six nominations. It contains one of his most understated performances. It's mostly done with his eyes. The actor who shouted, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" here plays a character who wants to be rid of shouting. The film itself never shouts. Its title evokes its mood, although this is not a story about happiness. "I don't trust happiness. I never did, I never will," Mac Sledge tells Rosa Lee, in a scene framed entirely in a medium-long shot that possibly won him the Oscar.

… Horton Foote won his second Academy Award for this screenplay. His first was for "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962), for which he recommended Duvall for his first screen role, and he also wrote their wonderful "Tomorrow" in 1972. He died at 92 in March 2009. Above all a great playwright, he could hardly write a false note. The down-to-earth quality of his characters drew attention away from his minimalist storytelling; all the frills were stripped away. When interesting people have little to say, we watch the body language, listen to the notes in their voices. Rarely does a movie elaborate less and explain more than "Tender Mercies."

Bruce Beresford, born in Australia in 1940, had great success with "Breaker Morant" (1980). "Tender Mercies" (1983) was his first American film, and its five nominations included best director, picture, and original song. He room a chance on casting Tess Harper in her first movie, after discovering her at an open audition in Texas. As Janet Maslin pointed out, the movie's "endless and barren prairie" could be in Australia. Even the country singing would fit there. With the cinematographer Russell Boyd, Beresford maintains a certain tactful distance from some scenes, such as the marriage proposal. There are alternating close-ups, but the movie isn't punched up that way and prefers to see these people in the context of where they live.

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