An Appreciation of the One and Only Robert Duvall

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Robert Duvall in Get Low
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A week ago my friend Joe called me on the phone and screamed “I just saw Get Low and if there’s a better actor working today than Robert Duvall you’ll have to show them to me.” Joe would know. He’s has a feature coming out in November, and a TV pilot that’s just starting to film up north. He’s been watching a lot of actor’s reels the last few weeks.

Joe’s not the only one who’s raving about Duvall’s performance in Get Low. The editor of this very web site gave Duvall a big thumbs up in his review, and with back-to-back strong performances in Crazy Heart and Get Low, there is no doubt Duvall is at the top of his game. As such, you’d think people would be lining up to offer the veteran actor parts.

Robert Duvall on the “Howard Stern Show”
(7/19/2010)
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You would be wrong.

Someone who would know told me the other day that Duvall has three films lined up, “but there isn’t funding for any of them”. Get Low, in fact, was eight years in the making and during a playful, and highly entertaining, interview on the “Howard Stern Show,” Duvall said “it took [the Zanuck brothers] six years to raise seven million dollars” for the film and Duvall (who’s also a producer on the picture) was paid less than one million dollars for his role.

As for Duvall’s “in production” features, I know one of those three films is Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Duvall was scheduled to play Quixote to Ewan McGregor’s Toby in Gilliam’s on again off again production, but the former Python admitted last week that the film lacked funding to even get started. What the other two films are I have no idea.

There is a film listed on Duvall’s IMDB page called Seven Days in Utopia. It’s film version of David L. Cook’s bestseller, Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia. According to IMDB it is currently filming in Fredericksburg, TX, but Duvall was in Los Angeles all last week promoting Get Low.

It’s not really that surprising Duvall isn’t getting a lot of offers. Get Low isn’t just the title of Duvall’s new film; it’s also a good description of its box office showing to date. The first week this little gem did respectable business with $22,000 a screen on four screens. This week it only managed to drum up $9,000 a screen on 26 screens. Of course, we’re not talking about a film that was ever going to break any box-office records, but it certainly goes to show audiences aren’t exactly turning out en masse to see any film without a certain level of blockbuster appeal.

If they only offered parts to actors who consistently bring in big box office, Will Smith, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler would be the only actors working. And you might have to scratch Sandler off the list if you factored in his “serious” films. But Hollywood caters to youth so the Zac Efrons and Robert Pattisons will always be allowed to fail more often than an older actor like Duvall.

Sad thing is, at 79-years-old there may not be many more opportunities to see Bobby Duvall work his magic in new features. Something we’ve been able to do ever since he burst onto the screen as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. Fifty years of classic films.

Duvall was never a traditional leading man. I wouldn’t characterize him as the handsome type, a la Robert Redford and Harrison Ford. He’s not rugged and imposing like Clint Eastwood. Nor does he have the dangerous oft-kilter intensity of his old pals Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. But he could play roles none of them could ever pull off.

He had gravitas to play Tom Hagen in the Godfather films and Frank Hackett in Network. The grounded earthiness to play Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies and Gus McCrae in the landmark mini-series Lonesome Dove and straight arrow hard ass Dad in The Great Santini. And he delivered the most memorable film line of the last 50 years as Lt. Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

There really isn’t another one like him. But the few actors that could give him a run for his money are also in the twilight of their careers. Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery have all, more or less, announced their retirements from acting. Ford and Pacino don’t have the same intensity they once had while De Niro and Nicholson make mostly comedies these days. Even Jeff Bridges is getting up there in age. He’s so long in the tooth he’s being digitally altered to look younger in the upcoming Tron Legacy.

If you love great acting as much as I do, I suggest you go out and see Get Low. Immediately. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. It’s not a perfect movie and it certainly has flaws, but you’re not going to get many more chances to see Duvall do his thing on the big screen. And he’s spectacular in this one.

Then again, Duvall may play the Brett Favre card and force us to rip him away from the game, but who would ever want to? When asked by NPR how much longer he may be acting he answered, “I don’t know, do it till they wipe the drool?”

“I mean, I’ve got a few things I want to do,” he added, though also pointing toward the funding issues I mentioned earlier. “[I want to do] things that are just as challenging and as exciting, or more so, than 20 years ago. But it’s very difficult to raise money nowadays, unless you’re a big big star… Right now there’s a wonderful script on the Hatfields and the McCoys, which is really like American Shakespeare. It’s a brilliant, brilliant script.”

The script he’s referring to is the one written by Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump), and one Crazy Heart helmer Scott Cooper met with Brad Pitt about directing for Warner Bros.

We can only hope Duvall continues to find work because when he’s gone there won’t be another one like him. He’s truly an original…

…and a hell of a tango dancer.