Lifetime Achievement Award winner Tess Harper

Tess Harper is the consummate actress—no ifs, ands or buts. She simply is. From the moment she stepped on to the screen in 1983 in Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies, she established this—and 24 years later she’s still proving it.

Belle of the ball: 2007 Career Achievement Award winner Tess Harper will get the red-carpet treatment at this year’s AFF. A retrospective of her work runs the course of the festival.

I suppose you could say that anyone who makes her film debut playing opposite Robert Duvall would have to be very brave, very foolhardy, very talented or a combination of all three. It’s certainly no small accomplishment to hold your own against a performer of Duvall’s caliber, but that’s exactly what Harper did. And she didn’t do it by trying to out-act the star. Rather she acted with him, making his performance all the better and proving herself a performer of tremendous intelligence and quiet intensity in the bargain.

Look at Tender Mercies carefully. You’ll find that it’s not simply a film played in a deliberately minor key. (Whatever else might be said about Betty Buckley’s performance as Duvall’s ex-wife, minor key is hardly a term that comes to mind!) Instead, it’s a film of smoldering tensions that lie always just beneath the surface of the characters. It’s a film that keeps heading in the direction of ripe melodrama, yet it always surprises the viewer by veering off in a different direction before it gets there—nicely thwarting our worst fears that things will get sudsy.

Part of this, of course, lies in Beresford’s direction and Horton Foote’s screenplay, but it all hinges on the playing of the two leads and how they relate to one another. This is where Harper proves her mettle—making us not only believe that she would fall in love with the tactiturn and troubled Duvall, but understand why she would. The answer to that doesn’t lie in the script, because these are not articulate characters. It lies in the subtle nuances of the performances. In many ways, Harper’s performance as Rosa Lee is what makes the viewer care about Duvall’s damaged country singer.

The Asheville Film Festival offers the chance to see this firsthand when it presents Tender Mercies on the big screen as the Spotlight Film in its salute to Tess Harper, this year’s recipient of the fest’s Career Achievement Award. It’s one of three Harper movies scheduled to play over the course of the festival. Harper will be at the screening and take questions from the audience.

That same evening, viewers also have the opportunity to see a very different Harper performance—again for Bruce Beresford—in Crimes of the Heart, an extremely Southern work that demonstrates her knack for the comedic. This time she’s called on to hold the screen with Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange—and once more she proves more than up to the task.

Her character—an outrageous (yet wholly believable) busybody “flower of Southern womanhood” named Chick Boyle—is the past master of the insult or dig that masquerades as caring concern. We all know this woman. We’ve all met her at one time or another. And Harper has her pegged right down to the mask that falls away whenever your back is turned—and which glides neatly back into place the second before you take another look. Thanks to Beth Henley’s clever script, Harper establishes the character from the moment we see her and is allowed the freedom to embellish on that—finally leading to the supremely satisfying moment when the mask just won’t stay on. Brilliant.

The following day finds another terrific Harper performance in Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads, a film that’s pretty darn terrific in its own right. This time Harper plays Elizabeth Austin, the adoptive mother of estranged gay son Mark (Kip Pardue). It’s a fascinatingly organic performance that sees Elizabeth grow from by-the-book hidebound wife of stiff-backed Reverend Robert Austin (Chris Sarandon) to a woman who comes to understand her son and, in fact, herself as the film progresses.

Harper and Kirkman invest the role with beautiful touches that make her progression believable every step of the way. Would the change of heart she undergoes as she changes from the woman who stops in her tracks from welcoming new neighbors when she thinks they might be gay to the woman who takes charge of her own life and feelings be nearly so believable without early glimmerings that she’s spent years subjugating herself to someone else’s standards and beliefs? I doubt it—and that’s what makes her performance so beautiful and true. Both Harper and Kirkman will attend the screening to introduce the film and answer questions afterward.

Don’t miss this opportunity to see and honor this wonderful actress, who will receive the Career Achievement Award at the awards ceremony on Saturday evening.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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