Robert Duvall’s Mac Sledge

Great artists arrange everything that goes into a work, and they do so in a way that draws us in and illuminates our experience by representing their own. In the case of film, there are many hands arranging the material: screenwriters, directors, producers, cinematographers, costume and makeup artists, musical directors, all sorts of technical hands, and, of course, actors—just to name the core team that puts the final work together for the silver screen. Among the arts, film is one of the most collaborative. With a great film, it is something of a miracle that everything comes together so powerfully as a coherent work of beauty.

To my mind, one of the best arrangements in American cinema is the 1982 classic, Tender Mercies. And, once again, we find at the heart of the matter a performance of great humanity by Robert Duvall. The screenplay, yet another masterpiece by Horton Foote, who also penned the scripts for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tomorrow, is profoundly humane as well. In the context of this beautiful story and his portrayal of the character Mac Sledge, Duvall develops a voice, specifically a country western voice, as authentic as the bare Texan landscape against which the story is filmed. 

In my two previous articles on Robert Duvall, I focused mainly on his acting. Here, I want to spend more time on the story in which he portrays Mac Sledge. I will draw attention to one particular moment in the film that exhibits his extraordinary acting powers; but, for now, let me recount some salient parts of the story as a matter of situating Duvall’s portrayal.

Mac Sledge is a former recording star in the early stages of middle age, with his life’s best opportunities seemingly behind him. When we first meet him, Mac is at rock bottom: broke, a drunk, out of favor with the music industry, divorced from his previous wife, Dixie, and mostly a stranger to his only child, a daughter named Sue Anne. 

Dixie is a fading country western star; but, unlike Mac, she is still hanging on, keeping her career alive by performing in smalltown music halls where the audiences remember her heyday. As we glance over the one venue where we see her singing, the locals seated in the hall appear to be middle-aged or older. Dixie is impossibly demanding, quick to anger, and seems to live in her head as she clings to her waning stardom. Her signature song is a showstopper. We wonder how she can muster such peak emotion night after night. The setup may seem unfair, and the audience gathers that in this situation it probably took two to burn down the marriage. However, having witnessed Dixie’s prima donna behavior, we feel a little more sympathy with her ex-husband. 

As circumstances have it, Mac finds himself in debt to a Vietnam War widow named Rosa Lee. Along a lonely two-lane highway that stretches across the endless Texas plains, Rosa Lee scrabbles a living together with a few rooms to let in the motel she runs and a gas pump for the trucks that pass by. The motel is named Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. Rosa Lee is salt of the earth: hardworking, soft-spoken, thrifty, kind, church-going, hymn-singing, forgiving of this hungover stranger who has trashed one of her rooms then sheepishly shows up at her door to ask if he can work it off. 

She is also prudent enough to allow Mac to stay only as long as he refrains from drinking. Rosa Lee seems like the perfect woman to shore up this broken man. And, it turns out, she is. Slowly, Mac pays off his debt. He gradually finds in Rosa Lee and her boy Sonny a new family. He even gets a chance to sing again.

Things are not perfect. At one point in the film, and only once, Sue Anne pays Mac a brief visit. The two of them are awkward in each other’s presence, distant. Physically, they stand apart. Sue Anne holds her hands in the back pockets of her jeans; she shrugs her shoulders a bit and turns her head when sharing a tentative comment. Each of them repeatedly looks down or away. 

Yet, Sue Anne has reached out. She’s made the trip to see her “Daddy.” Clearly, she longs to stir whatever might be left between them. With the trace of a little girl’s imploring, she asks him if he remembers a song he used to sing for her when she was little, the Gospel tune On the Wings of a Dove. Mac hesitates briefly, then claims he does not. There seems not much else to say, so Sue Anne leaves through the creaky screen door. Mac accompanies her out and then watches from the window as her car pulls away.

As Sue Anne disappears down the long highway, and as he continues looking out the window, Mac begins to sing. His back is to the camera the whole time:

When Jesus went down to the waters that day, He was baptized in the usual way. And when it was done, God blessed His son. He sent him His love On the wings of the dove.

On the wings of a snow-white dove, He sends His pure sweet love, A sign from above On the wings of the dove. On the wings of the dove.

Duvall’s vocal performance here is one of the subtlest, most beautiful moments in Tender Mercies. It would be a good exercise for students to rewind the film and watch the scene several times (see the link below to watch just this scene). And here is what they should focus on: Duvall’s singing, especially the way he modulates his voice to convey the complexities of what Mac feels for his daughter. His voice is gentle throughout the song. That is a constant. One thing that changes is his volume: it starts off softly, almost shyly, like the reticence Mac showed during the visit with Sue Anne. Then, little by little, the volume grows a level or two. His voice becomes confident as it winds into the chorus, his body starts swaying rhythmically to his right, keeping steady time. The vocal rise here is like a memory—at first, barely glimpsed, then gradually emerging into a full vision. 

Alone, the recollected song stands as a sweetness and a puzzle: sweet, because of the song’s significance for the father and daughter; puzzling, because we wonder why Mac did not recall it in response to Sue Anne’s request. But Duvall does not merely fill the moment with his lovely singing: After he finishes the last word, he sighs heavily, a brief, weepy gust, exhaled from the depth of his heart. It is the uncontrollable expression of a man whose soul is haunted by the gulf created by one too many bouts of drunkenness, the argument that cut irreparably deep, or, perhaps, that last, ugly door slam—whatever it was that finally brought an end to the Sledge family. Positioned as it is, immediately after the song with which he once lulled his baby girl, the sigh articulates Mac’s profound regret. In this complex but entirely illuminating bit of acting, Duvall succeeds in capturing Mac’s sorrow; and, at the same time, he convinces the audience of Mac’s motivation for not singing the song when Sue Anne asked: It is simply a matter of too much pain, too much regret. The memory of singing is there. The desire to sing the song again is there. His love for Sue Anne is real. Yet, he just cannot muster the strength to complete the memory in Sue Anne’s presence. Only when she is gone can he give himself over to the experience. His actions are those of a man still mourning a life that died years ago.

His reticence with his daughter is representative of Mac’s general outlook. At one point, while he and Rosa Lee are tending their vegetable garden, he says to her, “I don’t trust happiness. Never have. Never will.” That line comes late in the story, but we see his caution throughout, including in the brief visit with his beloved Sue Anne. Mac knows himself: he knows something is lost, maybe irretrievably. Even in a lighter moment in the film we get a hint of what he thinks. A fan recognizes him on the street of the local smalltown and asks, “Hey Mister, were you really Mac Sledge?” to which he responds, “Yes ma’am, I guess I was.” 

Throughout the story, Mac gives voice to something real, a basic human experience. We all recognize his loss, the selfish and self-destructive acts that turn a man away from others, the failures that burn up the foundations of marriage and parenthood. Mac’s painful struggle with hope illuminates an element of the human condition. Not everyone hits rock bottom, but Mac’s fall represents any fall; his life reflects anyone’s, lived as it is somewhere in between what gathers in happiness and what places happiness at a seemingly insurmountable distance. 

Still, in spite of his caution and belying the darker circumstances of his life, Mac moves forward, and his life seems to shift for the better. He makes some modest progress back into the recording industry, and he and Sonny get baptised on the same day in the little local church where Rosa Lee sings in the choir. On the ride home, as the three sit side by side in Mac’s truck, Sonny asks, “Do you feel different?” No, Mac gently admits. Yet, as the camera captures Mac, Sonny, and Rosa Lee together, each looking back and forth to one another, their joy is palpable; their sweet smiles and knowing laughter give evidence that maybe they have experienced a change for the better. All in all, things are looking good: Mac is sober, in the bosom of a new family, and singing again. 

What looks like a world at least partly redeemed, however, is dealt a harsh blow when Mac learns that Sue Anne has died in a car accident. Why, he asks? Why this? Why the blessings of newfound love and the curse of his daughter’s death? And as he thinks on loss, he wonders: Why did Rosa Lee’s first husband die, but he got a second chance at life? Why did Mac lose his daughter and Sonny his father? How are we to make sense of all this?  

Maybe we aren’t. But we see how good Rosa Lee is and how she makes Mac a better man. We see how her son is such a good boy—Mac calls him “a good little feller”—and how he gives Mac a second chance at fatherhood. There is nothing overly sentimental here. It’s all genuinely good, it’s all real. Of course, the death of Sue Anne is real too, as is the scorched earth that still follows Mac’s broken marriage—so much so that, when he tries to comfort the grieving and hysterical Dixie, it just doesn’t work. There is no getting around both kinds of loss: lost life and lost love. 

It is as if Mac’s life is etched into a two-sided album: one side with love songs, the other with sad ones. The film does not try to tidy everything up. Still, we are left with this final shot: The camera focuses on Sonny and Mac in a field of dry grass along the lonely highway where they live their new life together with Rosa Lee. As the two are tossing a football, Rosa Lee looks on from the door of the house. We see in her grateful eyes that this is good. We can see and feel the sweet gift that has landed “from above,” from beyond all human failings and frailties, like one of Mac’s songs: simple and warm, a light. The film makes such a gift believable, and it stirs in the heart longing and hope: longing, because the characters know loss and want to hold on to their new life, and hope, because the gift of new life is like light just breaking through the darkness, joy relieving the pains of sorrow. New life is like a mariposa’s wings, translucent and delicate but strong enough for rising again. Mercy does that for this little family. Tender Mercies does that for us.

Watch the scene.

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy. This article is the third in his series on Robert Duvall’s roles. Previous articles are in the June and July, 2019 issues of ToolKit.

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