By John H. Foote

THE APOSTLE (1997) (****)

Imagine being Robert Duvall in 1984. He had by then won an Oscar and awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics as Best Actor and was hailed as one of the greatest actors in American film history. He had appeared in The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), Network (1976) and Apocalypse Now (1979) all which solidified his status as the finest character actor in the business. He moved into lead roles in the eighties, The Great Santini (1980) and True Confessions (1981) displaying a shining fierce talent, winning an Oscar as the washed up country and western star in Tender Mercies (1983). He was it seemed, on top of the business, the most revered and well-liked actor in movies. That said he had written a script he could not get made based on his star power, no studio, large or small would touch it. He begged, he cajoled, he brought in directors like Sidney Lumet and Ulu Grosbard, but no one would make the film.

So, he waited.

One day his accountant said to him that he had enough cash to make the thing himself, why not do that? So, after a conversation with his friend Francis Ford Coppola, that is precisely what he did. He put up seven million of his own money, cast the film the way he wanted, produced, directed and starred in the film he had wrote, The Apostle (1997), and brought it to the Toronto International Film Festival, unseen, looking for a sale. I was at that first screening at the Uptown Theatre and I do not exaggerate when I say you could feel the electricity in the air. Duvall was in the zone onscreen, so far in character, the actor himself was invisible. Halfway through the first screening, two people got up madly dialing their bulky cell phones and ran for the exit; I learned later that night one was from Miramax, the other from October. There was crazy bargaining through the night that eventually saw the film go to upstart October Films who released the picture later that fall and pushed hard for Duvall to be nominated for an Oscar for what might be his finest screen performance. Duvall made all his money back, but more importantly to him he made a fine film and gave a superb performance, one for the ages.

And, as expected and as he deserved, he was indeed nominated for an Oscar, losing to local Academy favourite Jack Nicholson, but he won the LA Film Critics Association Award as well as the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor. The Independent Spirit Awards, given to the best in the independent film world honoured him with Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Director, leaving the actor-director smiling broadly most of the night.  It remains perhaps the most acclaimed performance of his career, a character portrayed with volcanic fury and non-stop motion, always moving always talking, a stunning fiery performance from an actor clearly in the zone.

Why then with so much acclaim did he lose the Academy Award? I suspect it had a lot to do with his financing the film himself, which the studios did not appreciate. He went around them to get the film made and the voting blocks in the Academy would not like that one bit. Second, Nicholson is a beloved Hollywood institution, known by his first name at the Oscars, Jack. He had not won an Oscar for fifteen years, gave a funny, likable performance in a box office hit, As Good As It Gets (1997), whereas the Duvall film struggled to make twenty-five million dollars. Nicholson himself believed that Duvall gave the greater performance, but he also admitted he was enjoying winning his third Oscar. Duvall, who attended, had no delusions that he was going to win. He would have liked to have heard his name call, which would have given the actor his second Oscar for Best Actor, but he confessed he knew Jack Nicholson was going to be taking home that golden man.

“Jack is a great actor, one of the finest” he explained over the phone in 1998, “and he is sort of the mayor of Hollywood, on the inside. I have never been, I prefer to be on the outside. So, the Academy saw a chance to honour one of their own and did, which is fine with me. It was thrilling just to be nominated alongside Jack, Peter (Fonda), Dusty (Hoffman) and the kid, Matt (Damon).”

The Apostle was the talk of the Toronto International Film Festival the day after it premiered. Critics admired Duvall’s performance and tenacity to get the film made, and even those who did not care for the film itself, could not deny the brilliance of the actor in the lead role. It was a galvanizing performance, one you could not keep your eyes off the entire running of the film. Suddenly everyone wanted Duvall, he was pulled and pushed to be interviewed by all the major critics, and I am proud to state I was among that lucky lot. Sitting down with him, face to face, you realize right away the depth of his gifts as an actor because there is no connection to any of the characters he has ever portrayed. I saw no sign of Boo Radley, Tom Hagen, Kilgore, Mac Sledge, Gus McCrae, Stalin or Sonny, none. Instead before me was a nearly seventy-year-old actor, fiercely dedicated to his craft, who had many great stories to tell about Brando, past movies and people.

He told the toughest role he ever had or ever will have was as Stalin in the HBO film Stalin (1993). Though heavily made up for the film, it was an unmistakable Duvall performance, intense, real, outstanding. We discussed his favourite role, that of cowboy Gus McCrae in the superb TV mini-series Lonesome Dove (1988) in which he and Tommy Lee Jones made great music together as two loyal friends headed out for one last adventure. In television history, I do not know if there is a greater performance than that of Duvall as Gus. And yes, we talked of the failures, though there are few, The Scarlett Letter (1996) being the film he most regrets. For most of my hour with him, we talked about The Apostle, which I made clear I loved.

As Sonny, Duvall portrays a fire and brimstone Southern preacher who discovers his wife is cheating on him, turning the tables on him after years of doing the same to her. In a fit of rage, he kills the younger preacher she is sleeping with in public with a baseball bat, and flees into the backwoods of the deep south to escape the law. Believing he must atone for what he has done, he begins preaching at a small church in a black community and helps them build a church believing perhaps that his Cain and Abel act will save him. What is remarkable about Sonny is that he truly does believe and has the Holy Spirit within him, there is no doubt!! But he knows they are looking for him and it is just a matter of time before they find him. When his wife, seething with anger hears him preaching on the radio she calls the police and they close in.

Duvall is electrifying in the role of Sonny, pouring ferocious energy into the role, never ceasing it seems to move when on screen. With his bow-legged walk, there are times he seems filled with the Holy Spirit as he preaches to the congregation, calling for an Amen. This is among the finest roles of his career and he knows it, dominating the screen like a life force, throwing his entire being into the role. He told me once only his work as Gus in Lonesome Dove (1988) surpasses this extraordinary performance. In strong support is Farrah Fawcett as his wife, and Miranda Richardson as his lover, with John Beasley as a friend he makes in the backwoods.

The film was a reminder of, in 1997 what a gifted and brilliant actor Duvall is, and brought him back to the public eye for a time. Now 88, he has not looked so healthy at the recent Oscars he attended as a nominee for The Judge (2015) and persistent rumours of illness plague him. That said neither has he slowed down, still unable to turn down a good role.

He has been one of the finest actors in America since the early sixties, since his performance as Boo Radley, the boogey man/savior of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner once said in the sixties, “there are two great acting talents in America, the first is Brando whose best work is behind him, the other is Robert Duvall.” Indeed. How good is he? As great a film as Apocalypse Now (1979) might be, does it ever really recover from the moment he stomps off screen saying with a pissed off tone, “someday this war’s gonna end”?


That is acting genius.


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