We all have our holiday traditions whether it’s watching college football and having a big dinner with the family on Thanksgiving or Midnight Mass on Christmas and opening presents afterward. On Easter Sunday, I spend most of the day with my family. Sometime in the late evening hours, however, I also spend some time with actor Robert Duvall. To be honest, I have never met him. I just watch Duvall in a little film he made, Tender Mercies (1983). This is the film that earned Duvall, who previously earned Oscar nominations for his work in such well-known films as The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Great Santini (1979), his only Academy Award for Best Actor.

In 1983, Tender Mercies was released in a handful of theaters. It didn’t make much money at first. However, the critics who saw it gave Tender Mercies enthusiastic reviews. The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations, winning two: best actor for Duvall and best original screenplay for Horton Foote , who died last year. Tender Mercies eventually grossed over $8 million at the box office (a respectable showing for a low-budget film in limited release). It also received high ratings on cable television and became a popular rental on VHS.

Despite all the attention Tender Mercies received, I missed it. The Bronx, New York, where I grew up and still live, didn’t get cable until 1990. My pre-Blockbuster, local video store may have carried it, but I probably overlooked it in the drama and new releases section. Even if I did see the VHS box for Tender Mercies on the store’s racks, I don’t think I would have rented it since as a young teenager, I naturally preferred action films, comedies, and science fiction.

Although my interests in film gradually broadened since then, Tender Mercies continued to pass me by. As a young adult, I learned about the film and knew that Duvall won best actor for it, but I did not bother to rent it.

I finally saw Tender Mercies on one of the most important dates on the Christian calendar and during an important transition period in my life. On Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000, a Long Island TV-station that my cable system gets aired Tender Mercies in the late afternoon.

That particular Easter was quite meaningful for me. The very next day, I started a full-time writing job with a small publishing company. I had wanted to be a writer, but it took me a long time to get started. The job I had just left was with a security company as an alarm dispatcher. I took it the previous year because I couldn’t get a job with either a magazine or a publishing company and needed something to pay bills in the meantime. I also tried freelance writing, but I got nothing but rejection notices (including from this magazine).

At the security job, I worked midnight to 8 AM on W. 47th Street in Manhattan’s Diamond District. The block where I worked can be seen in the Dustin Hoffman film, The Marathon Man (1976), where an elderly Holocaust survivor pursues the Nazi war criminal (Laurence Olivier) she remembers from a death camp. To rebuild my bank account and save up for a new car, I worked a lot of overtime. When I got home in the mornings, I slept only five or six hours (and much less when I worked double shifts). I ate once or twice a day and ended up losing about 30 pounds in the 11 months I worked there. The job left me physically and emotionally exhausted. I was grateful when my prayers were answered, and when I finally got my first, full-time writing job.

So on Easter Sunday in 2000, still tired from my last job but filled with hope that I would be starting my new writing job the next day, I watched Tender Mercies . My choice to watch it wasn’t preplanned. It just happened to be conveniently on when I had some free time. I enjoyed the film and found, in some ways, that it deeply resonated with what was going on my own life back then. Since 2000, I made watching Tender Mercies on Easter Sunday a personal tradition.

Tender Mercies is not explicitly about Easter. Its themes of redemption, forgiveness, hope, and personal transformation through religious faith, however, reflect what Easter represents. It seemed so appropriate that it happened to be broadcast on Easter Sunday.

Tender Mercies is about a man named Mac Sledge (Duvall). When we first see Mac in the opening scene, he has literally hit rock bottom. Mac is lying unconscious on the dirty floor of a motel room on some remote Texas highway. The night before, he lost a fight with his traveling companion over a bottle of alcohol. His companion left Mac behind and stuck him with the bill.

Mac was once a popular country music singer and talented songwriter. Years”perhaps decades”of alcohol abuse destroyed his life, career, and marriage. Mac, who once had fame and fortune, now has nothing. While he is washed up, Mac’s ex-wife, Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), is at the height of her own popularity as a country music star. Mac used to physically abuse Dixie and even tried to kill her once during a drunken rage.

The motel where Mac finds himself is owned by Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a young, pretty widow with a young son nicknamed Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Rosa Lee’s husband was killed in Vietnam. She remembers that he was “just a boy” but “a good boy. I think he would have been a fine man.”

With no way to pay the bill, Mac swallows his pride and approaches Rosa Lee. “Lady, I’m broke,” he says. “But I’ll be glad to work out what I owe you.” She agrees but lays down one rule: no drinking while he works for her. “Yes ma’am,” he politely replies. Mac does some odd jobs around the motel. Although he works off his debt, Mac still has nowhere else to go. He asks Rosa Lee if he can stay on and do more work for her. She agrees and gives him room and board and $2 an hour (well below minimum wage at the time.) Mac stays in a trailer.

Rosa Lee sings with the choir at her Baptist church in town. Mac begins accompanying Rosa Lee and Sonny to church. Although he has never been baptized, Mac has always been somewhat religious. In the pew with Sonny, Mac sings “Jesus Saves” with enthusiasm.

After several months of manual labor and going to church regularly, Mac concludes that his drinking is behind him. Rosa Lee observes: “I’m glad. I don’t think it gets you anywhere.”

Mac’s and Rosa Lee’s relationship has remained platonic. However, he has gradually developed romantic feelings for her. One day, while helping her in her garden, he proposes to her. “Will you think about marrying me?” he asks. “Yeah, I will,” she says. They eventually marry (off-screen), and Mac becomes a stepfather to Sonny. A short time later, both Mac and Sonny are baptized on the same day as Rosa Lee looks on from the choir. While driving home, Sonny says that he feels “a little different but not that much different.” He asks Mac if baptism has changed him. His “stepdaddy” replies, “Not yet.”

Mac finds a peace and happiness with Rosa Lee and Sonny that he may not have experienced in a long time (if at all). “Every night, when I say my prayers, and I thank the Lord for his tender mercies to me, you and Sonny head the list,” she tells him. Their life together isn’t exactly perfect. Word that Mac is now married to Rosa Lee gradually spreads. A reporter tracks him down, eager to write a story about him, but Mac shuns him. Rosa Lee suspects that Mac may have still have feelings for Dixie because “she’s rich and famous,” which he angrily denies.

One day, Sue Ann (Ellen Barkin), Mac’s 18-year-old daughter from his marriage with Dixie, comes to visit him. Mac hasn’t seen her in “seven or eight years.” He made a recent attempt to see her, but Dixie turned him away. Over the years, Mac tried to get in touch with her, but his ex-wife made sure Sue Ann didn’t get his letters. Sue Ann is curious about her father. “You don’t look like your pictures anymore,” she says. Although Mac hasn’t been a part of her life, he has managed to provide for her. Sue Ann explains that the royalties from all the songs he wrote were placed in a trust fund for her, and she can buy whatever she needs or wants. Mac reminds her that he may have written the songs, but her mother is the one who sang them and helped make them successful. Although Mac previously described his ex-wife as “absolutely poison” to him, he makes no effort to turn Sue Ann against her.

Mac gradually starts writing songs again. He isn’t interested in regaining his former fame, but thinks any money he could make will help him support his new family. Some of his songs include, “The Romance Is Over,” “If You’ll Hold the Ladder, I’ll Climb to the Top,” and “God Can Forgive Me, Why Can’t You?”

Mac records “If You’ll Hold the Ladder, I’ll Climb to the Top” for a small label with a local band of young country musicians who view him with awe. Mac and the band perform the song at a small venue . When Mac finishes the song, the audience cheers and applauds him. Robert Duvall does his own singing in Tender Mercies . If he didn’t go into acting, he could have made an excellent living as a singer.

Just as things look really good for Mac, he is devastated to learn that Sue Ann has been killed in a car accident. After the funeral, he starts asking why things happen the way they do. Mac recalls that he, while drunk, was nearly killed in a car crash. He asks why Rosa Lee decided to pity him, a drunk, take him in, and help straighten him out. Why was Sonny’s father killed in Vietnam? Why was Sue Ann killed while he lived? “I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died,” he says. “I got no answer to my prayers.” When faced with tragedy and other setbacks, many religious people have asked similar questions. Like Mac, they don’t have immediate answers. Choking back tears, Mac confesses to Rosa Lee, “You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”

Besides offering an uplifting story of personal redemption and spiritual rebirth, Tender Mercies offers a realistic view of religious conversion and religion itself. Mac may have found Jesus, stopped drinking, and become a loving husband to Rosa Lee and a loving stepfather to Sonny, but this doesn’t mean his life will from now on will be pain-free and an easy ride. What faith offers, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, is a “road-map” for us to live and a way to understand and deal with the challenges, frustrations, setbacks, temptations, and personal tragedies that life throws at us on a daily basis.

So what happens to Mac Sledge? Does Sue Ann’s tragic death destroy his newfound faith? Does he deal with the pain by resuming his old self-destructive ways? Tender Mercies ’ beautiful and powerful conclusion provides answers. We overhear Mac singing the hymn, “On the Wings of the Dove,” which shows that his religious faith is still intact. The pain of losing Sue Ann may have caused Mac to question his faith (as many people do in similar circumstances), but it didn’t destroy it. The film ends with Mac and Sonny enjoying a game of touch football as Rosa Lee looks on. She smiles and realizes that Mac’s transformation is something permanent.

Sometime today, I will watch Tender Mercies for the tenth straight year. As I struggle with my own challenges and worry (as is my custom) about the future, I hope it once again helps remind me what Easter is all about and what it offers.

Dimitri Cavalli is a freelance writer who lives in the Bronx, New York. He is planning to write books about Pope Pius XII and Joe McCarthy, the late manager of the New York Yankees.

Articles by Dimitri Cavalli

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