Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sitting beside the lake at the end of the second Godfather movie, having just had his brother Fredo murdered.
Casablanca’s Rick (Humphrey Bogart) entering his nightclub to the sound of Sam (Dooly Wilson) singing “As Times Goes By.”
The New World‘s Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) wearing a dress and standing on a tree limb in an English garden.
The peacock in the snow from Amarcord.
We all have our favorite film scenes, the ones that we can watch over and over. Maybe they’re amusing or passionate or iconic. There may be others, though, that we’re drawn to for reasons that are not entirely obvious. Ones that are not widely regarded as even the most famous scenes in the films where they occur. Something about them gets under our skin, stays with us, baffles us to some degree.
I feel this way about a scene from the film Tender Mercies. Former country-music star Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), long since divorced from his country-singer wife Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), and now remarried to Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), has an unexpected visit from his grown daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). Because her divorced parents remain hostile to one another, Sue Anne and Mac have not seen each other since she was just a girl. At the end of their short visit in Rosa Lee’s living room, Sue Anne asks Mac about a song she thinks he used to sing to her, when she was a small child. She tries to sing a line or two: it’s “Wings of a Dove” (from 1958, by Bob Ferguson).
He tells his daughter he has no memory of that. And then after she leaves, Duvall turns his back to the camera (he improvised this on the set), walks over to a window to watch her drive away, and begins to sing that song. It’s the most exquisitely beautiful, heartbreaking, and enigmatic scene that I have ever watched (again and again and again) in a mainstream film.
Mac never sees his daughter again. She dies in a car wreck shortly after their reunion.
Here’s a clip of the scene. So here’s my challenge to you: Why does Mac lie to Sue Anne? (Does he lie?) I’ll tell you what I think in a follow-up post. Post your answer as a comment.