Robert Duvall won his Oscar from his fourth nomination for portraying Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies.
Mac Sledge makes this the third character so far that is a drunkard. Luckily he is only a drunkard for basically the first scene of the film, something that is sometimes forgotten by modern descriptions of this film. He only has one scene, off camera, where he is actually being an alcoholic, with his fighting for a bottle, but that is all just noise which does give an indication to what Mac Sledge has being doing for many years before his arrival to a rural gas station and motel run by a young widow and woman Rosa Lee (Tess Harper).
After this initial scene we finally see Duvall as Sledge, and he creates a just about perfect characterization of this ex-country star. It really is fascinating because this is a the type of performance where I really never felt I saw Robert Duvall, only ever Mac Sledge. He does not do this with any makeup or overt mannerisms, but rather with a quiet incredibly subtle performance. The voice Robert Duvall uses for Mac Sledge is perfect, because it is so incredibly natural. He does not all ever seem to force his accent, but rather this is how Mac Sledge talks, simple as that. The same is also true for his whole manner, and demeanor for Mac. It certainly is quite different from many of Duvall's other performances, particularly The Great Santini, it certainly is a distinct manner but one which is created with the utmost authenticity by Duvall, that does not feel like acting, but rather that it is just a real person.
Something that I find absolutely fascinating about this performance is the deep emotional range Robert Duvall displays as Mac. It is particularly fascinating because only raises his voice at the very beginning of the film, and briefly again later in the film. Duvall shows absolute emotional honesty through his entire performance, but through always going for a quiet subtle performance. This is one performance that is almost entirely through his eyes of Sledge, since his actual emotional outbursts are rare and short when they do occur.
It is not that his character is at all a repressed man, Duvall rather shows that Mac's way is naturally of quietness. It is outstanding though how emotionally effective some of the slightest, smallest facial expressions, and eye movements Duvall makes can be. A moment of anger and frustration Duvall internalizes brilliantly when he is told his song he has written is no good, Duvall channels Sledge's frustrations without fault, and always with pure realism.
More powerful than his moments of anger though are Mac's moments of happiness, or reflection of his life. Duvall creates the history of Mac Sledge through his eyes, his face, and manner, which I think are best shown in particular moments such as when he finally sees his daughter again in a long time. Duvall does not over express Sledge's happiness, but he makes it clear showing it in a deeper more true to life fashion. This minimalistic approach is amazing, because of how incredibly effective it is, and it makes even some of the film that seems almost impossible on the page work. I think in particular Mac's love relationship with Rosa Lee, they marry basically instantly even off screen, yet it seems entirely natural to the flow of the film, because Duvall shows Sledge's love for the moment not in broad strokes but in an understated and entirely truthful fashion.
One aspect of his performance that should be noted is his singing in the film. Duvall is indeed entirely believable as a singer, and makes Mac's past believable as well, but more importantly is his performance of the songs in the film. Duvall makes each of his songs powerful and honest not because of his fine singing, but because he shows the way Mac puts his heart and soul into his songs infuses his feelings with the songs turning them into one. Duvall performance punctuations every single moment of this effective film, with emotional honesty. He never strikes a single false note with Sledge, he is always completely on the mark, without every seeming to act, which is an outstanding achievement. This is a brilliant performance by Duvall, that never comprises for a cheap trick, but always stays true and honest to his character, creating one of the best performances of this kind or any kind.