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Cinema: Divine Inspiration

7 minute read
Richard Corliss

He seems to live in the skin of characters whose skin you might not even want to touch. His trick is to find the surprising private clue: that, say, Adolf Eichmann, whom he played in a TV movie, “loved his kids, doted on them. That gave me a starting point.” Or that Stalin (an Emmy-winning HBO turn) could force himself to talk sympathetically to his daughter–“I felt that was as good a work as I’ve done.” So to get inside America’s greatest underrated actor, we should look for that secret quirk, that strange but true passion…

Robert Duvall loves to tango!

Books on the tango decorate the living room coffee table on his 200-acre Virginia farm. Tango records are scattered about. A favorite partner in this dance fever is his dark-haired, thirtyish live-in mate, Luciana Pedraza, who hails from an upper-class Argentine family. The news has to flummox moviegoers who’d have guessed that the only music the 67-year-old actor could move to would be a Sousa march.

A rear admiral’s son who grew up on Navy bases around the country, Duvall is best known for playing men with a military bearing about them, a sense of history and tightly coiled power. Think of Stalin and Eichmann, but also Eisenhower (twice), Jesse James, Joseph Pulitzer, Holmes’ Dr. Watson. He doesn’t just embrace their contradictions; he Heimlichs them to compelling life. The men may be good or bad or (Duvall’s favorite) both; he will inhabit them forcefully and without editorializing. His credo of acting is his credo of life: “Don’t judge too quickly. Don’t patronize. Don’t make statements. Don’t set people aside. Give them their due.”

Since his 1962 debut as Boo Radley, the monster and savior of two Alabama children in To Kill a Mockingbird, Duvall has given more than their due to some indelible movie creatures. The names Frank Burns (MASH), Tom Hagen (The Godfather), Lieut. Colonel Kilgore (Apocalypse Now), Bull Meechum (The Great Santini), Mac Sledge (Tender Mercies) and Gus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) summon sharp, overlapping impressions. The odor of anachronism hangs on most of these characters; they are uneasy with and suspicious of the modern world. While everyone else has gone slack and disorderly, they mulishly hew to an old or private code they dare not question. They alone remain semper fi.

To this gallery, add two miscreants from films opening this month: The Gingerbread Man’s Dixon Doss, a wily Georgia eccentric who is sort of Boo Radley grown old and gone wrong; and, more important, E.F. (“Sonny”) Dewey. E.F. is the Texas preacher in The Apostle, a complex, cantankerous drama that Duvall wrote, directed, stars in and–after all the studios turned down the $5 million project–paid for. This renegade Pentecostalist has the spiel and showmanship to fill a tent or a temple; when E.F. talks, people listen. “I’m a genu-wine, Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preachin’ machine this mornin’!” He can woo a dying man to the Lord, but he can’t heed his own gospel. He menaces his frazzled wife (Farrah Fawcett) and clubs a rival with a baseball bat; when the man falls into a coma, E.F. shows no regret or remorse. He flies away, landing in Louisiana and hoping to build another church. Jesus’ retailer needs a new store.

Is E.F. a madman? A hypocrite? A messed-up guy chained to his one gift? In his brave, alert performance, Duvall typically doesn’t try to reconcile, or even explain, the discrepancy between E.F.’s life-defining faith and his death-defying sociopathy. He leaves the judging to audiences. His job, which he does better than anyone else in movies, is to watch the world with those icy blue eyes.

“It’s the main work he does as an actor,” says Billy Bob Thornton, whose Sling Blade was partly inspired by Boo Radley, and who plays a pivotal cameo in The Apostle. “He observes characters.” Screenwriter Horton Foote (Mockingbird, Tender Mercies), who recommended that Duvall play Boo Radley, praises his “eye and ear for specifics of character. He has a feel for the Southern idiom, but he brings variations to it. For Tender Mercies he tape-recorded people, then studied the accent till he got it right.”

Duvall is an ethnographer at heart, pounding the back roads, keeping his eyes open, taking notes. “I don’t watch other movies to study acting,” he says. “I go to documentaries. And I learn from people. There are things you pick up–one mannerism or gesture, one little subtle thing.” Before making Lonesome Dove he was visiting the Texas home of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, quarterback for the ’40s Washington Redskins. “He had a way of pointing”–Duvall cocks a finger and throws his hand in the air–“and a particular way of talking. I put that into the character.” Thus did an old football star become a driven cattle driver.

The Apostle required 35 years of watching and waiting. In 1962, during rehearsals for an off-Broadway show in which he was to play a man from Hughes, Ark., Duvall broke up a transcontinental trip to stop in Hughes. “I got off the Trailways bus,” he recollects, “and wandered into this little church. There was a lively preacher; the congregation was stomping and moving and feeling the spirit. I said I’d like to play one of these guys one day.” When he asked Foote to do the screenplay, the author encouraged the actor to try it himself. In 1984 Duvall began writing. “I pieced it together from stuff that I had found out about this kind of life, just traveling around and absorbing like I do.”

Sonny is a composite of preachers from rural Texas, Virginia and Tennessee. “I listened to the way they whoop,” he says, “then hold the note and cut it with a cadence.” If you expect a Jimmy Swaggart-style spellbinder, who coaxes near operatic melodrama from his rich baritone, E.F. will disappoint you. The narrow range of Duvall’s voice can convey muscle and danger; the music is lacking. His whoop is a thing of will, not an expression of soulful exuberance. For that, listen to the real preachers Duvall hired for small roles. Black or white, they’ll have you lining up to be baptized in the nearest creek or bayou.

On his farm, Duvall is a gentleman farmer who has just finished renovating a barn into a posh party space, with a bar, a pool table and, of course, a dance floor. He can afford it. October Films paid $6 million for U.S. rights to The Apostle. He also earns a nice paycheck on gigs like this year’s Deep Impact (sci-fi with Morgan Freeman) and A Civil Action (courtrooms with John Travolta). That leaves something in the bank for his own projects; he and Thornton are planning a Merle Haggard biopic. “The best of it all,” he says, “is I’m a late bloomer. I get better as I get older; I learn more and have a lot to draw from. I’m going to try to maybe direct some things and produce some others. But if my film company was suddenly destroyed–which won’t happen–I have a good career as a hired hand.”

And in the unlikely event that his film career dries up, Duvall could try Broadway. We hear they’re auditioning understudies for Forever Tango.

–Reported by David E. Thigpen/Faquier County

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