Rediscovering the drama in decency and compassion

The excitement of Tender Mercies lies below the surface. It's not the quick charge of fast action, flashy performances, or eye-zapping cuts. Rather, it's something much more rare - the thrill of watching characters grow, personalities deepen, relationships ripen and mature. It's the pleasure of rediscovering the dramatic richness of decency, honesty, compassion, and a few other qualities that have become rare visitors to the silver screen. It feels good to have them back again.

Robert Duvall sensitively plays Mack Sledge, a country singer with a broken career and a drinking problem. Down and out in rural Texas, he puts up at a roadside motel, and eventually marries the young widow who runs the place. By slow degrees, he puts his life back together, devoting himself to his new wife and stepson.

Problems from the past keep dogging him as old entanglements creep into his new situation, bringing confusion and disappointment. But the movie's whole thrust is on Mack's progress from dissolution to dignity, and on the people who help him make the trip. It's a moving and life-affirming story - riveting to watch, refreshingly humane in its attitudes, and tastefully handled, though a handful of vulgar words have earned it a PG rating.

''Tender Mercies'' is a daring picture, tossing decades of Hollywood convention cheerfully out the window. Faced with temptation, the former drunk stays off the bottle! Widowed early, the young mother keeps her home together and raises a fine son! That carload of beefy youths isn't a gang looking for trouble, but a country-music band hoping for a glimpse of their hero! Surprises galore, most of them heartily underscoring the good in people.

As written by Horton Foote - and directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, of ''Breaker Morant'' fame - ''Tender Mercies'' combines delicacy of detail with great strength of structure. Though the story and performances thrive on subtlety, the underpinnings of the film are as firm and palpable as human nature itself. Capitalizing on this, Foote and Beresford make masterful use of understatement, letting the emotions of the story speak for themselves through quietly framed shots that deftly sidestep sentimentality.

Their style culminates in a brilliant scene late in the film, as Mack struggles to work through an unexpected tragedy. ''I don't trust happiness. I never have and I never will,'' he tells his wife with breaking voice, bowed by the weight of his trouble. Yet there's a profound irony to the moment, since happiness is all around him - in his family, his home, his work, his future. He even knows it, in a dim sort of way, and he's bound to know it better as time and experience roll on. It's a deeply stirring moment, and all the more so for the gentleness with which it's conveyed.

''Tender Mercies'' has flaws, like all movies. There's a bit of syrupy music on the soundtrack, especially at the end, which is also marred by a few cute closeups that overstate their case. A couple of scenes also slip into melodrama, pushing their moods just a little too far. Most of the way, though, ''Tender Mercies'' builds a marvelous flow of suspense and surprise precisely by refusing to ''pay off'' on situations that would plunge toward sensationalism in any conventional picture.

Add another stunning portrayal by the brilliant Duvall - who even does his own singing! - and a splendid supporting cast, and you have a movie to treasure for a very long time to come.

Chat with the writer

Horton Foote, who wrote ''Tender Mercies,'' came to it from a long career of stage, television, and movie work. A veteran playwright and TV dramatist, he turned to films in 1963, winning an Oscar for ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' based on Harper Lee's fine novel. His other Hollywood credits include ''Baby, the Rain Must Fall'' and ''Hurry Sundown,'' as well as ''Tomorrow,'' which continued the collaboration with Robert Duvall that began in ''Mockingbird.''

The idea for ''Tender Mercies'' came from watching a nephew try to make it in the country-music business, in a band that was helped along by an older musician. ''This older man had been through it all,'' Foote told me over lunch the other day, speaking in the faint Southern accent that's a legacy from his Texas upbringing. ''As I thought about a storyline, I got very interested in that type of character.''

Another key element, the hero's victory over drinking, also came from Foote's own observations. ''I've spent my life in the theater,'' he recalls, ''and I've known performers who have struggled with this problem. It's a shattering thing to see a wonderful artist ruined by such a thing - and yet some have the humility and grace to fight it off and come back. That's what I had in mind.''

Asked about the movie's gentle approach, Foote says he looked for the best way to treat this subject matter. ''I wanted to show a man coming out of something,'' he says, adding that a melodramatic slant would have undermined his intent: ''That's been done so many times, and I didn't know what purpose it would serve.''

Then too, a certain restraint is part and parcel of the Foote style. ''It's just how I write,'' he says. ''I've been told often that it's not commercial, but that's how I do it, and I'm stuck with it. When I try the other way, I get into trouble. I'm not against jazzing things up, I just don't don't know anything about it! Some of those quiet long-shots in 'Tender Mercies' even make me nervous. But if that's your talent, that's your talent. . . .''

One of the pinions of ''Tender Mercies'' is the hero's wife, a strong and sturdy woman whose touchingly honest conversations with her little boy are some of the film's most exquisitely written scenes. How did her character come about?

''There's a kind of woman who crops up in my plays, and in a lot of American literature,'' Foote replies. ''She's not intellectual, but kind of intuitive. I go to the South a lot, and I'm struck by these women who have very little in possessions but have great dignity, even though they've married young and often have to raise children alone. . . . I write them from a sense of affection and admiration. I don't find them sentimental. They can be very confident, though they've been given more than their share of things to work out.''

The title of ''Tender Mercies,'' from the Book of Psalms, also relates to the character of Rosa Lee, played by Tess Harper. ''I looked for something that would express the expectations that kind of person has,'' Foote explains. ''It's all she asks for - certain moments of gentleness or respite. She has a sense of appreciation for what she has; it's nothing to do with grandness or largeness, but just thanks for a nice day or some such thing. Mack must learn to evaluate and appreciate this quality in her.''

Though it's his newest child, ''Tender Mercies'' isn't the only thing on Foote's mind these days. He is also working on a cycle of nine plays called ''The Orphans Home,'' which grew out of his ''meditating and thinking about the South,'' and has roots in the story of his own father's life. One portion, '' 1918'' - about the ''moral and spiritual journey of an orphan at the age of 12'' - may be made into a film. Another, called ''Convicts,'' will probably star Duvall as a 90-year-old hero.

It's a massive project, reflecting Foote's continuing love of the stage. He says ''the Broadway arena doesn't have much room now'' for serious playwrights like himself - or peers like David Mamet and Sam Shepard - but he finds a lot of energy and ferment in other parts of the theater world. By contrast, he sees little good on the TV scene and has written little for that medium in recent years.

So expertly is ''Tender Mercies'' put together it's hard to believe it marks the first time Foote has written directly for the screen. If moviegoers are fortunate, it won't be the last. ''I guess I finally, deeply, inside myself do feel,'' he says, ''that in spite of all the chaos around us, there's an awful lot to celebrate in human beings.'' It's a philosophy Hollywood could profit by. Amiable comedy

''Lovesick'' is an amiable romantic comedy about a man who falls in love with a woman he meets at the office. The catch is that he's a psychoanalyst, and it's against all the rules to ''get involved'' with a patient.

With one rule down, others quickly follow. Before long, our hero has developed a hearty disdain for the psychiatric ''industry'' he belongs to. In fact, he drops out altogether - for a life of just plain helping people, instead.

The man who concocted this tale is Marshall Brickman, who collaborated with Woody Allen on such neat pictures as ''Sleeper'' and ''Annie Hall'' before making his own directorial debut with ''Simon'' a couple of years back. The new film continues his longtime passion for comedy but chews over a few real ideas, too.

It's no accident, for example, that the main character - played by Dudley Moore - starts as a doctor and ends as a kind of '80s flower child, putting his trust in simple affection rather than complicated theories. ''I think there's a reaction against science today,'' Brickman told me over lunch recently. ''People feel a need to find answers somewhere else.

''The scientist used to be an unassailable figure in our society,'' he continues. ''The man in the white coat was used to sell products and endorse government programs. Doctors were especially looked up to. But the situation is changing - you can even see it in movies like 'Close Encounters,' which takes a very romanticized view of science. I think there's something very correct about a doctor, like the man Dudley plays, throwing off the rigid tenets, the philosophy, the whole approach of classical medicine. He's very practical, really, and finds the idea of one-on-one caring much more attractive.

''I think that fits the mood of the country now,'' Brickman concludes. ''We're moving away from the general narcissism of the '60s and '70s, which psychiatry played right into.''

In making his new movie, Brickman says, the trick was to merge the ideas with the laughs while throwing in dollops of romance. By and large, he has managed the job well, though some of the humor is less than sparkling, and some of the dialogue - including parodies of Freudian theory - is racy enough to stretch the limits of the PG rating.

Does this comic filmmaker have a secret yen to do a ''serious'' movie? Is there a tragic ''Interiors'' lurking in him, as there was in Woody Allen, his mentor?

To a degree, yes, as even his current picture shows. ''As I got a little older, and after doing so much comedy,'' he says, ''I wanted to see if I could deliver some feeling along with the laughs. I felt an impulse to use the medium to its fullest, if that doesn't sound too pious, and move audiences in a different way.''

The trend toward more substance might continue, somewhat, in his future films. ''I guess every comedian wants to play 'Hamlet,' and maybe all comedy directors want to get 'serious' too,'' he muses. ''Drama sometimes seems very appealing.'' But down deep, the smooth comedy of his new film suits him fine. There's every chance that Brickman will try to keep us laughing, even when he has ideas and emotions to share. ''At least it'll save me from being pompous,'' he smiles.

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