Tender Mercies (1983): Oscar Nominated Spiritual Fable Starring Robert Duvall in his Only Oscar-Winning Peformance

In Bruce Beresford’s warmly intimate “Tender Mercies,” based on a screenplay from Horton Foote, Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a drunken, washed-up country singer who takes up residence in a Texas motel.

Unable to pay his bill, he stays on to work off his debt and falls in love with the motels owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a young widow whose husband had died a decade ago.

This quietly powerful, sharply observed tale, set in rural Texas, is the kind of “small” yarn about an alcoholic singer who finds spiritual redemption in religion and the love of a good woman, that seldom gets the Academy voters attention.

But in 1983 the film touched a chord, earning Best Picture nomination and the Best Actor Oscar for Duvall, his first (and still only) Oscar, despite multiple nominations in both the lead and supporting categories.

The original script by Horton Foote, who had received an Oscar for his adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” shows delicate concern for its characters, people who say Jesus saves, without pandering to or making fun of them. Footes sensitive (but unsentimental) and nuanced script finds its pace and meaning in the slow, plaintive tempo of rural Texas life

“Tender Mercies” is impressive in every respect, showing as Vincent Canby observed in the New York Times, the effect of rediscovering the kind of screen fiction that has been debased (and avoided) by American moviemakers.

We learn that Sledge was a successful country songwriter and husband of singer named Dixie (Betty Buckley) until a nasty temper and booze drove him out of the union and now he is trying to find a new, modest living based on a new sense of dignity for himself.

Early on, talking to Rosa Lee’s young boy Sonny (Allan Hubbard), Sledge admits, Im missing the music. I may not be any good any more, but that doesnt keep me from missing it. Later, after tossing a football around with Sonny, Sledge teaches the still admiring boy a few guitar chords.

Sledge’s recovery process involves getting christened in a Baptist church, trying to make peace with his once-rebellious daughter (Ellen Barkin), and visiting former wife Dixie to say an elegy over their dead marriage, healing open wounds, hoping for a new, mature friendship with her.

Though “Tender Mercies” represents the American film debut of Australian director Beresford (who achieved fame with “Breaker Morant”), he shows extreme sensitivity to the unique landscape and the regions’ indigenous culture and mores, avoiding excessive melodrama and condescension, and reaching for a particular and authentic love story that also has compassionate and universal notes.

Visually, Beresford opts for alternating long shots of the geography with intimate ones of his accomplished ensemble of actors, allowing each one to come through and register strongly. Indeed, as the down-and-out country-western singer, Duvall gives a strongly rich yet restrained performance that defines and sets the tempo of the entire film.

The small-budget film was shot in Waxahachie, Texas, which also served as the locale of several great American movies, such as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Last Picture Show,” the TV version of “Of Mice and Men,” and “Places in the Heart.”