Released in 1994 ▪ Review posted July 6, 2014
“You will hand me an envelope predicting my joke about Nags Head.”
Note from Jack Donaghy (30 Rock)
There is love and kindness inherent in Guarding Tess. The film’s tender approach to reality was a trope of the early ’90s—one which, along with other examples like Dave, The American President, and Sleepless in Seattle, I could get behind. It was a world where love always prevailed and injustices were always corrected.
It is in this world of unmitigated love that we find Nicolas Cage’s Doug Chesnic, a Secret Service agent who in his heyday was assigned to the detail of a U.S. president named Carlisle, but is languishing in his current assignment to protect Carlisle’s beloved widow, Tess (Shirley MacLaine). Adding to the frustration of not being used to his full potential, Chesnic must also deal with Tess’s cantankerous and willful personality. Tess, who is privately coming to terms with having an inoperable brain tumor, undermines all Secret Service protocol in her attempt to find joy in the remainder of her life. Comedy and drama ensue.
But there is such delight in Chesnic’s rivalry with Tess. It is so genuine. You want to see them snipe each other because each actor portrays their character with an undercurrent of mutual respect and admiration. They play an emotional game where the only object is never to reveal to the other how much they care. This makes Tess’s kidnapping in the contrived climax somehow palatable. We get to see Cage’s Chesnic openly care about Tess in his search for her, only for her to grouse at him from inside her living grave about how long it took to track her down.
It’s a relief to see a strong male lead alongside an equally strong female lead in a non-sexual relationship. Aside from Mary Richards/Lou Grant, Murphy Brown/Eldin Bernecky and Liz Lemon/Jack Donaghy, I’m hard pressed to come up with other examples of this kind of empowered, respectful, and platonic male/female relationship.
Although Cage’s performance is nothing without MacLaine’s bantering abilities (for more classic examples of this, see Billy Wilder’s The Apartment), he gives back equally, holding his own against one of America’s greatest actresses. There are many people who couldn’t act alongside Shirley MacLaine and Cage is not one of them. He trades barbs without cowering or overpowering. It’s an agile delivery for a volatile actor. Really, this movie is the best of Cage. He’s dedicated to relationship-building, emerging only briefly as an action hero, and motivated by well crafted justifications. There’s only one handgun assault in this movie and Nic Cage earned it.
The screenplay is also superb. Guarding Tess was written and directed by the creator of WKRP in Cincinnati, Hugh Wilson, who also has the distinguished and nearly unmatched accomplishment of making it big in Hollywood and deciding to just…stop. He doesn’t write or direct anymore. He teaches media studies at the University of Virginia. I’m pretty sure he’s my hero.
Guarding Tess is charming from beginning to end. The supporting cast is exceptional, featuring character actors Richard Griffiths, James Rebhorn, and my personal favorite, Austin Pendelton. It’s a high-quality and well crafted movie no matter how you approach it. This one is a must-see for any Cage scholar.
- How was the movie?
- How was Nic Cage’s acting?
- Did his performance make the movie worse?
- It was better because of him!