It’s sad to see truly talented actors wasted on poor material. A few years ago, I found myself baffled by the film The Dying Gaul (2005, dir. Craig Lucas, based on his play), which was pretty disastrous but featured some stellar acting by Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson. The phenomenon of a good performance in a bad film is confusing, because it requires a certain teasing out, a disentwining, of the good from the bad; sometimes a good performance can trick you into thinking the film itself is good. In other cases, the performance is clearly so much better than anything else around it that nothing else—the poor script, the mechanical plot, the flaws in continuity—seems to matter much. (Mommie Dearest would be a good example. The film itself is pretty middling and thin, but also so outlandish in parts that it becomes, of course, impossible to look away from it; meanwhile, Faye Dunaway is busy hitting it out of the park.) And there are some films so bad that not even a good actor can emerge unscathed.
But even more frustrating than the good actor stuck in the middle of a car-wreck of a movie is the good actor not only stuck in but also limited by the middling, thin movie. I thought of this as I watched Tender Mercies (1983, dir. Bruce Beresford), the film for which the great actor Robert Duvall won an Academy Award. Duvall’s performance in this film is like an Andrew Wyeth painting framed by cheap cardboard. This is a wan, muddy Movie-of-the-Week movie that would be utterly forgotten today were it not for Duvall elevating it to the status of a minor American classic. He plays a former country singer-songwriter, now “reformed” and living a quiet life running a roadside gas station in Texas with a dull, plain wife (Tess Harper) and a cherubic son. There is one heartbreaking and authentic line in the film’s Oscar-winning (!) screenplay: “I don’t trust happiness. I never have and I never will.” It’s suggestive of a certain hauntedness about Duvall’s character that is, sadly, too little explored by the film. The rest of the screenplay is made up of homespun platitudes of the “ours is not to reason why; ours is just to do and die” variety. Tender Mercies is almost worse than an objectively bad movie—it’s a soft, quiet, timidly stitched-together movie, the cinematic equivalent of an embroidered sampler, with poor Robert Duvall trapped right in the middle. He does the best that he possibly can with this material, and brings out as much depth as one possibly could have done with this character. But the film is an insult to his intelligence and his talent.