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Viewer Guide: Tender Mercies and The Carer

August 21, 2020 | Richard Peña


Tender Mercies (1983)

Tonight’s classic is Tender Mercies, the 1983 drama from a screenplay by Horton Foote, and directed by Bruce Beresford.

In his first Oscar-winning performance—after three prior nominations—Robert Duvall stars as Mac Sledge, a man who seems to be in the final stage of losing his battle with the bottle. Waking up in his ramshackle room at a faded motel somewhere in rural Texas, Mac has reached a quiet realization that he’s finally hit bottom. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do, he turns to Rosa Lee, the young widow running the motel played by Tess Harper, asking if he can stay on as a handyman to earn his room and board. Sensing Mac needs someone to give him a break, Rosa Lee agrees, and their laconic partnership gradually blossoms into a quiet romance, with Mac also helping out with Rosa Lee’s boy Sonny. But when a van full of musicians pulls up at the motel, we start to learn that Mac’s past life wasn’t exactly an ordinary one: in fact, he’s a country music singer-songwriter, complete with an estranged country diva ex-wife played by Betty Buckley, and a teenaged daughter played by Ellen Barkin. But when Mac’s old life starts to crowd in on his new one, he finds himself confronting some of the old demons he thought he’d finally put to rest.

Robert Duvall and playwright Horton Foote’s long association dated back to Foote’s screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, with Duvall memorably portraying the mysterious Boo Radley. After a bad Hollywood experience with The Chase in 1966, Foote had withdrawn from screenwriting, but began to cautiously venture back in 1972 with his adaptation of William Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow,” which also featured Duvall in the lead role. Upon its release, Tender Mercies became a slow-building sleeper hit, winning audiences with its beautifully controlled performances and very adult look at romance. Garnering five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, the film was awarded Oscars for Best Original Screenplay for Foote as well as Best Actor for Duvall, who also did all his own singing in the film.


The Carer (2016)

This week’s indie is The Carer, A 2016 comedy-drama directed by János Edelényi.

As the legendary American actor John Barrymore once remarked, “a man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” And in The Carer, such a decline seems to be the case with Sir Michael Gifford, an illustrious British star of stage and screen who once dazzled audiences with his Shakespearean prowess. But as played by the similarly acclaimed Scottish-born actor Brian Cox, Sir Michael has faded from view into old age as a curmudgeonly recluse, now spending most of his energy “not going gentle into that good night,” in the words of Dylan Thomas. Despite a palatial country estate and the support of a loyal staff who somehow are still able to tolerate his petty and sometimes racist tirades, Sir Michael must endure all the same indignities of aging faced by everyone else, regardless of fame and fortune. Suffering from Parkinson’s and prone to falls and bathroom accidents, Michael clearly needs fulltime assistance, a task that falls to his semi-estranged daughter Sophia, who struggles to find—and keep—a live-in caregiver for him. But with the arrival of Dorottya, an aspiring Hungarian actress played Coco König, the power dynamic of the household begins to shift: where Sir Michael is critical and alienating, Dorottya is tolerant and steadfast. And unlike Sir Michael’s previous caregivers, instead of living in terror of his next tantrum, Dorottya’s pragmatic good nature—and ability to quote Shakespeare—gradually begins to rehabilitate some of Sir Michael’s regrets back into dreams.

What is it about actors and aging? There seems to be a world-wide genre of films dealing with the vicissitudes of actors passing on to their not so golden years—works ranging from France’s La Fin du Jour to China’s Just for Fun, passing through such treats as the Swiss documentary Tosca’s Kiss, about a retirement home for opera singers. And who can forget Sunset Boulvard? Perhaps the combination of those who have spent their lives preparing to perform and a reality for which there can be no real preparation is simply too attractive to let pass by. Director János Edelényi hails from Hungary, and brought with him for this British production cinematographer Tibor Mathé, who creates a luminous warmth for all the spaces of Sir Michael’s somewhat overwhelming manor. And like Sir Michael, Brian Cox has also been extensively honored for his work in the theater, winning two Olivier Awards for his performances in Rat in the Skull in 1984 and Titus Andronicus in 1988. For eight months, Cox starred in the London West End production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N Roll, later reprising his performance on Broadway in 2007. In 2000, he was honored with a Primetime Emmy Award for his performance as Hermann Goering in the miniseries Nuremberg, and received an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on the hit comedy series Frasier in 2001. Currently, Cox is starring in the HBO series Succession.

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