By John H. Foote
In 1981, the New York Times declared him Americas greatest actor. Long before that, before his great success on film, acting guru Sanford Meisner said, “There are two great actors in America, the first is Brando, whose best work is behind him, the second is Robert Duvall.” In that same piece, they declared Duvall the American Olivier, which pissed him off.
“The British figure they do Shakespeare and they are great actors, I would go toe to toe with Olivier on anything. I played Gus McCrae, that is my Hamlet” the Actor told me in an interview.
There is such purity in Duvall’s work, a believability with each new character, and he seems to do it effortlessly. He truly loves acting, and I saw first hand that deep love for his art on the set of John Q (2001) when he was on location shooting in Toronto. Director Nick Cassavettes told me, “you never know what he is going to bring to each take, just that it will be completely in character and organic.” This is why directors revere him and actors adore him, he elevates the work of all around him just by being present, and he does so effortlessly.
His breakthrough, or what should have been his breakthrough came as Boo Radley in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and though perfect in a silent role it would be another decade before he truly broke through with his sublime performance as Tom Hagen in The Godfather (1972). Duvall came into the business when Dustin Hoffman had broke through, making it clear God like good looks no longer mattered. Duvall was ordinary looking, though rugged, which he used to his advantage.
The truth is all that matters to Duvall in his art, nothing else, and he gets there his way. God help the director who tries to tell him how to get there or how to play the part, he has been known to tell them exactly what he is thinking, or what to do with their opinion. Not a method actor he always claims, but he shares the obsession with truth the method actors seek.
“I just never saw the point of being anything other than honest in the work,” he told me in 2000, “it made no sense to me.”
For Duvall it has always been about the authenticity of the work, nothing is more important and he strives for that with research, meticulous preparation, and people watching. He has been known to base the creation of his character by something he noticed in the manner someone gestured or spoke. And he genuinely loves people, making conversation with the cab driver, the lady who approaches him in a restaurant, or a member of the crew.
Five times I have interviewed the actor and always found him fascinating. One thing I took note of each time, the man sitting across from me bore no resemblance as a man to the characters on the screen which makes his accomplishments all the more extraordinary. He believes his best work to be his performance as Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove (1988), telling me “the British can have their Hamlets and Macbeths, I played Gus McCrae and for me, that is American Shakespeare, I am happy.” At his best as unique men, he claims Stalin (1992) was the hardest role of his career and regrets his involvement in The Scarlett Letter (1996), but virtually everything else in his career is work he can be proud of doing. He continues to elevate those around him, remains fearless, and devoted to his craft. Approaching ninety, he is a master craftsman.
When the conversation of our greatest actors comes up, Duvall is always at the top of that list. Eight Academy Award nominations, his single Oscar does not do justice to him, but he is immortal through cinema.
Here are his ten best performances.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Both boogeyman and saviour of the children, Boo is a simple minded adult, sheltered much of his life to protect him from ridicule. When Scout sees him and whispers, “hey Boo” we see hm for the first time, a man child with shocking white hair, and his eyes soften at her voice. She leads him away by the hand knowing she is safe with him and always will be, and he understands in her care, under her watchful gaze no harm will ever befall him. Though Boo kills a man trying to harm the children, he is a gentle innocent, like the mockingbird of the title.
9. True Confessions (1981)
Opposite Robert De Niro who portrays his brother, Duvall is excellent as the tough as nails outspoken cop on the trail of a killer. His search takes him into his brothers world, the halls of the Catholic Church, where the two will collide over right and wrong. Set in the forties it is a powerful noir bolstered by the performances of the two great actors who deliver fine performances that were overlooked by the Academy. Duvall is a standout as the hot tempered Tom, a cop with an instinct telling him the church is dirty.
8. The Great Santini (1980)
As Bull Meechum, the peacetime warrior without a war, it seems the dedicated marine declares war on his children, referring to them as hogs and bullying them as though they were in the marines. They respect him, they fear him, but do they love him? The sequence where he berates his eldest after being bested in a game of 21 is alarming in its nastiness. Bouncing the ball on his son’s head, taunting him, chanting at him, he is a warrior who has just been beaten, which does not happen to him. The performance elevates the film in every way.
7. The Godfather (1972) & Godfather Part II (1974)
As loyal Tom Hagen, the German- Irish adopted son and the lawyer of the Corlene crime family, he emerges as the man both Don Vito and his son Michael can trust, he says, yet even so he does not. Fiercely loyal to aging Vito, he would die for this man who took him in, saw that he was fed, clothed and educated, deciding to work for him knowing what his business was. Tom watches as Michael loses his moral soul, wiping out everyone who stands in his way, lying to an congressional committee on crime where Hagen defends him. Again in the background, he slips in and out of the story with ease, and when he is not present in Part III, we realize how he is missed.
6. Open Range (2003)
One of the finest of the modern westerns, this one directed with gritty realism by Kevin Costner, Duvall is well cast as the head of a group of law abiding free grazers. Attacked by a local cattle baron, who murders one of their group, declaring war on them, Duvall and Costner lash back. Duvall is fatherly as Boss Spearman, yet more than willing to jump into a gunfight when called on. A decent man in every possible way, he refuses to be bullied or intimidated, which leads them into trouble. Sublime in every way.
5. Broken Trail (2005)
Another venture into TV saw Duvall do Emmy winning work as a tough old rancher, who with his long lost nephew rescues a group of Chinese women and takes them across country to safety. In pursuit are the buyers and pimps of the women, who want their property back. Duvall is outstanding in the film, working well with Thomas Haden Church. The actors have a wonderful, taciturn western, evolving over the course of the film. Duvall gives a magnificently honest display of humanity in this film. One of those rare actors who seems at home in a western.
4. Tender Mercies (1983)
The actor won his only Academy Award for his sad and subtle performance as Mac Sledge, a washed up country singer who finds redemption in the arms of a younger woman, and slowly works his way back into the business. Duvall did all of his singing in the film, very well in fact, but it is the heartache he carries in the film that won him the Oscar. A beautiful little film about the human condition, a tad muted for some, but the quiet emotional power cannot be denied. Who else but Duvall would have the courage to do one of the finest scenes in the film, with his back to the audience despite the fact the entire sequence is focused on him? Complete confidence in his artistry. No vanity.
3. Lonesome Dove (1988)
In this remarkable TV mini series, Duvall is rascally but fearless former Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae, who has partnered all his life with Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones), best friends who could not be more unlike each other. In retirement, Gus pushes Call for one more adventure, moving a massive herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. The chemistry between the pair is a joy to witness, acting at its best, and each does superb work. Gus’ death scene is heartbreaking, but what you will remember is how he lives and how truly he was alive every day of his life. “It ain’t about dying’ Woodrow, it’s about livin'”. Thrilling to watch, as a humble, though genuine hero, his best years beyond him, Duvall is Gus.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
As great as the film is, and it is astounding, it never quite recovers form the moment we lose Duvall. For fifteen startling minutes, his Kilgore take charge of the film and is stunning. Stalking the beach, oblivious to the bullets whizzing past or bombs going off, he neve flinches, so confident is he that no harm will befall him. And of course he utters that famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Never before has any performance made so clear a love of combat.
1. The Apostle (1997)
For years Duvall tried to get this made, approaching the studios after winning an Oscar hoping it gave him some clout. At one point Sidney Lumet was going to direct, at another point, he asked Coppola before finally financing and deciding to direct it himself. Casting himself in the role he had written, he gives the greatest performance of his career. As a flawed Pentacostal minister possessed by furious energy, he kills a man before fleeing into the backwoods of the Deep South, the actor is electrifying. Truly a man of God, he is nonetheless a criminal and knows himself must atone. Watching him overcome with the fever of the Lord is something to see. Extraordinary, and he should have won his second Oscar for this.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.