Friday, April 03, 2020

Some random thoughts about Robert Duvall, Horton Foote, Tender Mercies and COVID-19

Today I received an advance copy of the May/June Cowboys & Indians magazine featuring my cover-story interview with Robert Duvall. And I must admit: When I opened the FedEx envelope, I felt at once extremely happy and unspeakably melancholy.

I felt happy, of course, because I always enjoy interviewing Robert Duvall — and not just because he always insists on my calling him “Bobby.” (Which I do, even though I cannot help thinking: “I am not worthy! I am not worthy!”) And seeing the cover reminded me of our most recent conversation, when we talked about everything from his plans to attend the Western Heritage Awards celebration at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City — where he was slated to receive a lifetime achievement honor — to his experiences working with director Steve McQueen on 2018’s Widows. (“He’s a terrific director — one of the best I've ever worked with! I love working with that guy!”)

But I also felt sad when I remembered that we’d had that conversation before the full fury of COVID-19 began to be felt in this country — and, indeed, before the Western Heritage Awards had to be cancelled because, as long as we’re stuck in this Brave New World of The New Normal, such events are being postponed indefinitely, if not cancelled altogether.

So my mind started to wander. And I couldn’t help thinking of something I wrote about my favorite Robert Duvall movie of all time — Tender Mercies, the 1983 drama that earned Academy Awards for Duvall’s lead performance and Horton Foote’s original screenplay — just three years before Foote’s death in 2009.

“Several years ago, a colleague at the now-defunct Houston Post wrote a story about movies that some people – celebrities, mostly – like to watch over and over and over again on videocassette. (Hey, I told you this was several years ago.) When he ran out of really well-known folks to interview, he collared me in the newsroom and asked: ‘What movie do you watch repeatedly?’ And so I told him: ‘There’s something about Tender Mercies that deeply and profoundly affects me on so many levels that, yes, I’m addicted to watching it. Whenever I get depressed, I want to pop the tape into the VCR, and hear Robert Duvall say: “I don’t trust happiness. I never did, and I never did, never will.” God, I know exactly how he feels.’

“Flash-forward a few weeks: I am at Houston’s Stages Theatre for the opening night performance of Talking Pictures, a play by the great Horton Foote, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Tender Mercies (and To Kill a Mockingbird). There’s a post-performance party, and I’m off in a corner, munching on fried chicken I obtained from the bountiful buffet, when I spot Foote — who I’ve met maybe once or twice before that evening —across a crowded room. I nod, give him a thumb’s up — the play actually was quite good, and deserves to be revived — and go back to eating. Much to my surprise, however, Foote cuts short a conversation he’s having with someone, walks across the crowded room, makes his way over to me and, without a hint of irony, says: ‘Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry you get depressed…’”

To this day, I cannot understand why I didn’t break down crying right on the spot.

Masterfully directed by Bruce Beresford, Tender Mercies is a spare, subtle film that speaks in a quiet yet compelling voice about faith and despair, regret and redemption, lower depths and second chances, while considering the restorative potential of human and divine love. Duvall is absolutely heart-wrenching in his portrayal of Mac Sledge, a down-and-out country singer who’s redeemed by the love a good woman (Tess Harper), then pushed back to the brink by a devastating tragedy.

But as much as I admire his performance, and the movie that contains it, I’m not sure I can watch Tender Mercies again anytime soon. (And I am pretty damn certain I can't watch 1918, the 1985 film version of Foote's play that deals in part with the Spanish Flu epidemic.) Because, really, it’s no longer a matter of not trusting happiness. Rather, it’s a question of: When are we going to be happy, really happy, again?

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