by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie that Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay”

PLOT: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.

Tender Mercies does not feel like a movie that was released the same year as WarGames, Octopussy, and Return of the Jedi.  It has more in common with the spare, character-driven films of the early ‘70s like Five Easy Pieces [1970] and The Last Picture Show [1971].  It’s a movie where not much seems to happen, at least on the surface.  Underneath the barren landscapes and big skies, however, great truths about life and acceptance are on display.

Anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies tells the story of Mac Sledge (Duvall), whom we see at the opening of the film collapsing in a drunken stupor on the losing end of a fight in a rinky-dink roadside motel in rural Texas.  The next morning, broke and abashed, he makes an arrangement with the widowed motel owner, Rosa Lee (Harper): he’ll do odd jobs at the motel for room, board, and $2 an hour.  Rosa Lee’s son 10-year-old son, Sonny, watches this situation unfold impassively and asks Mac some very direct questions: “Did you used to have money?”  “How’d you lose it?”  “You think my dad would’ve liked you?”

The filmmakers (directed by Bruce Beresford, Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, who also wrote the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]) make some interesting choices for everything that follows.  There is a gentle scene between Mac and Rosa Lee where he shyly asks her, “You ever think about gettin’ married again?”  She says she has.  “Would you ever think about marryin’ me?”  She says she will think about it.  And in the very next scene, it’s made clear that time has passed, they got married, and have been married for several months.  In another film, that kind of “condensed storytelling” would go into the negative column in my book, but not here.  Instead, it feels…right.  We don’t need to show any further details of their courtship, their wedding, Sonny’s feelings about it one way or the other, etcetera.  Those extra scenes would have delayed the narrative structure, showing us things we don’t need to see, but which we can easily deduce.

There’s another scene (I’ll try to tread lightly here) where Mac gives a heartfelt, but still masterfully underplayed, speech to Rosa Lee about how he was in a bad drunk driving wreck years before, and how God saw fit to bring her into his life, but to do so meant her husband had to die, and so on.  “See, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did, I never will.”

When he finished, and Rosa Lee stood there taking it in, in my head, I imagined her replying with something like, “Well, Mac, you don’t have to trust happiness, you just have to trust me”, or “yourself”, or some similarly corny platitude.  Instead, in what must have been superhuman restraint on the part of the screenwriter, Rosa Lee simply stands there, processes what she just heard…and walks offscreen, leaving Mac alone with his thoughts.

That was a big moment for me.  It seemed to me to be a gesture from the filmmakers that this is not a movie about processed dialogue and ancient story arcs and the kind of emotional beats you might expect from a film.  Instead, it felt like I was looking at real people, reacting realistically to real dialogue.  Rosa Lee could have drawn the scene out, but instead she seems to realize there is nothing she can say that will make things better for Mac.  She loves him, but she knows this is something he’ll need to work out for himself, and no amount of sermonizing will help him towards that goal.  It’s a small moment, and it doesn’t occur until late in the film, but it’s this moment that convinced me Tender Mercies had a lot to say in between the pauses and transitional shots of country roads and straight horizons.

There is a lot more to the story, but the film presents very little of it with the kind of forward momentum we’ve come to expect as moviegoers.  Instead, we are treated to new developments almost as if we are intruding on these people and their lives.  Even in a scene at a crowded Opry house where we see Mac’s previous wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley!), belting some good old-fashioned, Parton-esque country tunes, the shot choices and editing still feel almost like we’re voyeurs as we watch Mac listening to one of Dixie’s ballads, then leaving, not quite in disgust, but clearly uncomfortable.  It’s in the aftermath of this concert we get the first solid information on his estranged daughter (Barkin), who would be about 18 years old by now.  Dixie screams at Mac, “She doesn’t remember you!  All she remembers is a mean drunk!”  This scene was so well-realized that I started having flashbacks to some of the fights my own parents got into before their divorce.

I don’t mean to suggest the movie does not have an arc.  It absolutely does.  But Tender Mercies does such a good job of “burying the lead” that I didn’t fully get what the movie wanted to say until the very last scenes featuring two characters tossing a football back and forth.  Mac’s life seems to be back on track.  His music career seems about to be resurrected.  Mac might still have trust issues when it comes to happiness.  Perhaps all we can do is appreciate the small moments of happiness we have while we can.  If sadness or tragedy comes, let it come.  It will hurt for a time, but it will also make those small moments all the more precious.

If that sounds clichéd, well, maybe it is.  Tender Mercies does a much better job of delivering that message than I could ever do, proving once again: a movie is not about what it’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.


Unless you read the script, you can only judge a screenplay by the movie. Based on the movie, do you feel this script deserved the award for Best Screenplay? Explain.
Great question!  For the record, the other nominees that year were the screenplays for The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, Silkwood, and WarGames (that last one kinda surprised me).  I am a little surprised Tender Mercies edged out The Big Chill, a movie with far more prominence than this little Texas character study from an Australian director, but I would say Tender Mercies certainly deserved the award based on the movie by itself.  Much like Lost in Translation [2003], the screenplay relies more on silences and context to deliver its message rather than on showy dialogue or melodramatic plot developments (to be fair, there is one sort-of melodramatic plot twist in Tender Mercies, but it’s handled so well it doesn’t play that way).  Sure, Tarantino and Sorkin might deliver high-quality screenplays that are flashier and certainly wordier, but to craft such a high-quality film in such a minimalist style is admirable and deserves recognition.


By Marc S. Sanders

Mainstream films released by big studios suffer from a major problem these days.  Too often, they don’t allow their characters to breathe.  Films today rush to the climax or the action or the cliffhanger that’ll whet our appetites for a sequel or a crossover or a toy product.  Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy escaped all of those conventions.  In fact, I’d argue that Beresford made a buddy picture with his Best Picture Winner based upon Alfred Uhry’s well received play.

Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy, who won the Oscar, and held the record for oldest recipient) is an insistently independent old southern Jewish woman living in Georgia.  She drives her car where she wants to and whenever she wants to go somewhere.  However, following an accident in her driveway, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd in a very surprisingly good performance) breaks the hard truth to Daisy that her driving days are over since it’s likely no insurance company will ever affordably cover her.  Boolie recruits Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman in one of the most gentle and delicate performances of his amazing career) to chauffer the proud woman around her Georgia neighborhood.  Naturally, Daisy does not take well to Hoke at first.

The film begins in the 1950’s and then spans roughly 20 years from that point.  I love how Beresford presents the passage of time.  The cars that Hoke carries Daisy in change as the years go by.  As a new car is shown parked in Daisy’s garage, the relationship and eventual friendship of Hoke and Daisy become stronger and, on some occasions, franker and more honest.  With Hans Zimmer’s energetic score that seems to accelerate the speed of the automobiles Hoke drives, Driving Miss Daisy feels like a very sweet and tender film.  It is.  Moreover, it’s an alive picture.  However, the film does not ignore the prejudiced mentality that’s embedded within the south.  A telling moment occurs when Hoke is driving Daisy to a family gathering in Alabama.  Why would an elderly black man with an elderly Jewish woman sitting in the back seat be met with such disdain by policemen who question their presence while eating lunch on the side of the rode?  I won’t repeat the officer’s comment here, but it is ugly and a sad reflection of how things were.  Are things still that way?

Uhry’s script adaptation from his play does not stop there though.  He questions Daisy’s own stance.  She takes no issue with black people catering to her and her home on regular basis, and she becomes enamored with Martin Luther King’s inspiring wisdom.  So, when she is given the opportunity to see Dr. King speak in person, it only makes sense that Hoke will question why he was invited last minute to join her.  After so many years of servitude, why did Daisy wait until Hoke literally drove up to the location of the speech to invite him in?  I’d argue that it never occurred to Daisy, and I think Alfred Uhry believed that is part of the problem.

Both Daisy and Hoke experience anti-Semitism and racism in the mid twentieth century south.  Ironically, the film demonstrates that common victimization is one reason why they need one another.  I’m thankful that Beresford does not show a burning synagogue for dramatic effect.  Instead, he relies on Uhry’s dialogue as Hoke breaks the news to Daisy when they are on their way for morning Shabbat services.  How does Daisy feel in this circumstance?  The synagogue can be rebuilt.  The horror of knowing this kind of hate exists will never be erased.  That’s the terrible shock.  As well to empathize, Hoke describes how as a child he saw his uncle get lynched and hung from a tree.  Daisy and Hoke unite in the hate that surrounds them.

The performances of Freeman, Tandy and Aykroyd are exquisite.  Their dialect for each of their respective characters rings so true of the Georgian southern regions they stem from.  Freeman has an enunciation that rings of a black man who never learned to read.  He even develops a laugh that seamlessly works into his dialogue and reaction to Daisy’s stubbornness.  His posture is marvelous as an elderly gentleman who will walk slowly while hunched over.  It just looks so natural. Aykroyd is in no way doing one of his comedy characters.  He carries the gut of a well-fed southern man who’s become successful with his family business while not taking every fit that his mother has so seriously.  If any of us have had to tend to an elderly relative, then we can certainly relate to Boolie’s position.  Tandy is wonderful at method acting; it should be studied in performance art classes.  She was an elderly woman already when cast in the role.  Yet, as the years carry on through the story, she changes her gait to how this woman’s bones might become more brittle, or how she might speak slower or smile or frown or chew her food.  She has such a fire in every one of her scenes.  A heartbreaking scene where she appears to be having a frantic form of dementia is very eye opening as she paces her historic two-story home looking for papers she graded years earlier as a teacher.  The younger Freeman (playing a far older man) has to keep up with Tandy in this moment; even Beresford’s steady cam has to move quickly to keep focus.

Recently, I had reviewed Terms Of Endearment, and I alluded to the fact that not enough films about middle age people are focused upon, or at least given the commercial attention that they should be given.  Why is that?  So many middle age and elderly characters are so interesting.  I said it before.  Look at The Golden Girls sitcom.  After all, characters with more years behind them have had more moments to live and breathe. Actually, they have a longer history with more nuances and meaningful events they have already encountered, as opposed to twenty somethings with hot cars, pecs and guns.  Film studios are missing out on a wealth of great storytelling. 

Driving Miss Daisy is well paced story of friendship and fear, and often natural comedic material within its three lead roles.  It’s never boring.  It’s only more and more interesting as the years of the story pass by.  It’s simply an endearing buddy picture of the finest quality.