Guarding Tess — Great 1994 Film with Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine

Guarding an irascible and irrepressible old woman in the “wilds” of Summersville, Ohio, is boring business for seven Secret Service agents, even if she is the former First Lady and widow of a President. It’s an assignment that the SAIC (Special Agent in Charge) Douglas Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) is sick and tired of and he wants out. He wants to be where the action is — not buried in the boonies jumping at the beck and call of Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine).

Her only amusements in life seem to be the remnants of her fading glory — videos and splashy magazine covers — and keeping seven grown men at the end of her tether. She loved the power of the White House and she is loathe to relinquish it. But Doug Chesnic wants to do his job by the book, even on such a “cupcake” assignment. But rules and regulations are made to be broken by those who are used to getting their way. So there is a major power struggle between her and her special agent.

However, she has a lot of her own rules and they are ironclad. The agents have to check their guns at her bedroom door. She hates guns and is always calling her agents “gunmen”. No smoking in the house. No one is to read the newspaper before it is brought to her. One of them, usually Douglas, must bring her breakfast upstairs on a tray with a single rose in a bud vase.

For five years the Secret Service detail has had it fairly easy except for her demands. Now, all of a sudden, she wants to get out, be active, live life. She wants to go to the opera. She wants to go golfing with outdoor temperatures at 38 degrees. She wants to go on a picnic in the snow — because she says . . . who can wait for summer. She gives her agents the slip — not once, but twice — by ordering her chauffeur, Earl, (Austin Pendleton) to gun it while the agents are out of the car. The men then have to go through the embarrassment of asking the local sheriff’s department to help search for her. She has made them a laughing stock.

And now the power struggle is really ratcheted up. She keeps two carloads of agents waiting because she won’t sit in the proper place in the car, and Special Agent Chesnic won’t let either car make a move until she does. Secret Service rules have reasons with far-reaching consequences. He knows his agents are bored and lax, which is dangerous. Doug tries to set a good example by not letting down his guard and doing his job. Whether it is one he likes or not.

But he can’t stand the role of lackey she has him playing. He quits, but she goes over his head directly to the President, who goes to the Secret Service Director, who has a chat with Special Agent in Charge Douglas Chesnic. Doug asks her why she even wants him around. They only argue. She says it’s because she likes him. Later in the movie we find out why she likes him. Doug was on her husband’s Secret Service detail back when he was President, and one moment in time convinced her of his loyalty and devotion, even above that of her two estranged children.

But Doug finally gets enough when she demands that he go after her lost golf ball. He tells her in no uncertain terms that he is not her caddy, and that his agents will no longer be used for menial service. But while he brags about his line-in-the-sand stand to his agents, he gets a phone call from the President. Tess Carlisle still has a lot of clout.

Finally, over a face to face talk in the dead of night between Tess and Doug, she tells him about her family and her relationship with the President, about her triumphs and heartaches. She asks that these revelations remain secret. “You can trust me,” said her agent. “I know that,” she said.

As Doug gets to know his First Lady, her graciousness and poise in the face of disappointment, her vanities about her public image down to every little detail, her quirky personality and backbone of steel, he grows to understand her more and more, and with that understanding comes caring. Then Agent Chesnic sets himself to guard not only her life, but her dignity.

Then when she inevitably goes missing, and he and his team are pushed aside by Washington bigwigs for letting it happen, they work through their shame and guilt for her sake. They know her better, they know the community and situation better. They also know the FBI and Secret Service are barking up the wrong tree.

And when it comes to saving the life of his First Lady, all rules and regulations go right out the window. Special Agent Chesnic won’t let anything or anyone stand in his way, even if he has to shoot somebody to do it.

Guarding Tess was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1995, and is one of my favorite movies. The acting is superb, and the details are both poignant and delightful.

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5 thoughts on “Guarding Tess — Great 1994 Film with Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine

  1. Oh! I absolutely LOVED this movie, too. I’ll watch anything Shirley MacLaine is in. She was wonderful in this movie and Nicholas Cage was so good, too. What a pity that all the movies he’s made recently are pure crap. Apparently all he’s interested in now is the paycheck.

    • Nicolas Cage has had some really great movies and some really bad ones. I just don’t think he’s too choosy. I’m like you. I think it’s about the money. Same with Tom Cruise. But Cruise has never been the actor Nicolas Cage is. I hate that Cage wastes his talents so often. I just knew you would like Guarding Tess. I’m not a big fan of the late Ebert’s reviews (sometimes he missed the whole point of a movie), and he got too wordy, therefore boring. But he said that Nicolas Cage set the whole tone of his character with his first word — “Breakfast” — and just by the way he said it you knew he was frustrated, bored, but wanted to do his job. Anyway, Ebert said it a lot better than that. I’ll have to look it up again. But he was right. This was one tightly written screenplay, and Cage and MacLaine brought the words and actions to life. Ebert also said that this movie was more the true MacLaine than anything she’s ever starred in.

      • “I just knew you would like Guarding Tess.”

        LOL How well you know me. I have no secrets anymore. :>)

        You’re right about Tom Cruise. Lately it’s been all “Mission Impossible” drivel, but earlier in his career, he did actually act. He was good in “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Jerry Maguire”, “The Color of Money” and “Interview with the Vampire” is my favorite Cruise film.

  2. I had forgotten about Born on the Fourth of July. I saw Jerry Maguire except for the last 10 minutes once. I think it was on TV and something happened to cut off the end of it. I always meant to watch it again on DVD but just never got around to it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Color of Money. However, (and I’m not a “vampire” fan) I loved Interview with the Vampire. Although I was a fan of the original Mission Impossible (which is quite dated now), I’ve never had an inclination to watch the Tom Cruise version. Just the trailers looked dorky, so I never wasted my time with them. I don’t know if you’re a sci/fi fan, but Minority Report is a really good Cruise movie. A chilling projection of how a future, far-reaching technology can bring law enforcement into the dimension of playing God.

    • “Jerry Maguire” is good so hopefully you’ll have a chance to see it again someday. “The Color of Money” is about a pool hustler (Paul Newman) and is a terrific movie. See it if you can. I haven’t seen any of Tom’s “Mission Impossible” movies. Like you, I thought the trailers looked dorky. I’m not very “into” big action movies.

      I’ve seen “Minority Report” and liked it a lot. I’m not a devoted sci-fi fan (Star Trek, Stars Wars, etc.) but I’ve seen a few sci-fi films. I plan to see the newest “Star Trek” movie because I adore Benedict Cumberbatch. I have the DVDs of both seasons of “Sherlock” and have watched them over and over.

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