It won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert Duvall) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and was nominated for Best Director, Best Music, Song (for Austin Roberts and Bobby Hart for "Over You") and Best Picture.
(Although the scenes are shot chronologically, there are no indicators as to whether the scenes are days, weeks or months apart.)
The movie begins showing silhouettes of two men arguing in a hotel room. They are arguing over a bottle of liquor. A man, later identified as Mac Sledge (Duvall), is seen falling down and passing out.
After that night of drinking, Mac wakes up somewhere in Texas at a run-down, roadside hotel and gas station. The owner of the hotel, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Harper), informs Mac that his companion has left him. Mac asks Rosa Lee if he can stay and work off the debt for his room. Rosa Lee agrees. Mac later asks Rosa Lee if he can stay on and continue working for her for room and board. She agrees, as long as he doesn't drink while he's working. (We find out later that Rosa Lee's husband was killed several years earlier in Viet Nam, leaving her a widow at age 18, with an infant son to raise.)
Mac and Rosa Lee's growing affection for one another is subtly portrayed. Most telling is a scene where they are sitting one evening, chatting as they watch TV in Rosa Lee's living room. Like a couple on a first date, they shyly share bits of their life stories. They are interrupted by Rosa Lee's young son, Sonny, calling to them from his bedroom, and asking them to stop talking so he can go to sleep. Some time later (not clearly defined), while working in Rosa Lee's garden, Mac asks her to marry him. He says, "A blind man can see how I feel about you." We never see her give her answer, but from later dialogue, we come to know that they did marry.
One day, Mac goes out to their pump to gas up an automobile. The driver of the car, a newspaper reporter, asks Mac whether he is "Mac Sledge, the singer". Mac refuses to answer. The reporter asks a series of questions, trying to get Mac to reveal where he has been, why he stopped recording music, whether he was an alcoholic, whether he has remarried, and what Mac thinks about his previous wife, country music star Dixie Lee (Buckley). He states that Dixie became famous singing Mac's songs. The reporter tells Mac that Dixie is performing nearby. Mac refuses to answer any of his questions.
After the reporter's story is printed, a local country western band comes to see Mac at the hotel. They tell Rosa Lee that they are fans. Although Mac is obviously pleased to see that someone still remembers him and his music, he is hesitant to open up that part of his life again.
Mac goes to Dixie's concert. Dixie is an aging country western singer, but it is clear from her performance that she is tremendously talented. Dixie performs a song, obviously written by Mac, expressing deep and unending love. In the middle of the song, Mac gets up and walks out of the performance.
He meets Dixie's manager (Brimley) outside of the concert hall. Mac gives Dixie's manager a new song he has written. Mac then goes backstage to see Dixie. Dixie is extremely upset to see Mac, and rebukes him for visiting her. She warns Mac to stay away from their daughter, Sue Anne. Later, Dixie's manager tells Mac that his song is no good and that the country music business has changed.
Angry and hurt, Mac returns home. Rosa Lee asks him why he went to see Dixie. She admits to him that she is jealous. Mac, apparently ambivalent about his feelings, cannot tell Rosa Lee why he went to see Dixie. As she presses him, he storms out of the house. Mac then visits a bar, and buys a bottle of whiskey.
Later that night, he returns home. He confesses that he bought the alcohol, but says he poured it out. He then says that he tried several times that night to leave Rosa Lee, but that he always came back.
He explains to her that he had recorded a few songs before he met Dixie. He wrote a song for Dixie, and she recorded it, and the song was very successful. After he and Dixie married, Dixie said that she wanted to sing "for five years to get it out of her system." But, Dixie never stopped singing.
Mac and Dixie's daughter Sue Anne then visits Mac at the hotel. Mac tells Sue Anne that he wrote to her, and asks if she ever got his letters. She says that she never did. Sue Anne tells Mac that Dixie does not want her to see Mac, but that she is eighteen and can see whoever she wants. It is revealed that Dixie divorced Mac after he tried to kill Dixie in a drunken rage. But Sue Anne tells Mac that over the intervening years Dixie place all the royalties from Mac's songs into a sizable trust fund for her, and that she wants for nothing. She tells Mac that she has a boyfriend who is a musician Dixie's band, and that she and her boyfriend have to sneak around to see each other because Dixie doesn't like the boyfriend. As she is leaving, she asks Mac if he remembers a song he used to sing her about a "snow white dove". Mac says that he does not. Immediately after she leaves, we see Mac standing at the window watching her drive away, and singing to himself the old hymn "Wings of a Dove," -- " When Jesus went down to the water that day, He was baptized in the usual way. When it was done, God blessed His Son, sign from above, on the wings of a dove. On the wings of a snow white dove, He sends His pure sweet love. Sign from above, on the wings of a dove."
Mac and Sonny (Rosa Lee's son) are baptized at Rosa Lee's church.
The country western band Mac previously met asks Mac if they could perform one of his songs. He agrees. They later ask Mac if he would sing the song so that they could make a record. He agrees. He then performs the song (a song about Rosa Lee) with the band in front of an audience. The audience enjoys the music, and heartily applauds Mac. Mac is obviously pleased that people still enjoy his music.
At some later time, the band has recorded Mac's song. They bring Mac the record to enjoy, but Mac and Rosa Lee tell them they do not have a record player. Just as Mac and Rosa Lee are leaving to go to a friend's house to listen to the record, the telephone rings. Mac answers the phone and is told that his daughter has been killed in an automobile accident.
Mac attends the funeral at Dixie's lavish home in Nashville. Dixie has had an emotional breakdown. She asks Mac why their daughter died, why this has happened to her, and why God has done this to her.
Back at the home, Mac is tending the vegetable garden. Rosa Lee asks him how he is doing. Mac is obviously upset and in pain. He tells her that years ago he was almost killed in an automobile accident. He doesn't know why God spared him and yet his daughter died in an automobile accident. He also doesn't know why Rosa Lee's husband was killed in a war. He says, "I never trusted happiness."
The next scene shows that Mac has bought Sonny a football and left it for Sonny to find in his room when he comes home from school. We see Mac in the field across the road from the hotel, singing to himself "On the Wings of a Dove." Sonny comes running up to him, thanks him for the football, and the movie closes with them playing football in the field