TORONTO: Duvall the talk of the fest — shades of 1997

Posted by · 2:01 pm · September 13th, 2009

Robert Duvall in Get LowYou know a film is hot when it is the subject of conversation in the screening, in the press room, and in the hallways of the hotels where the press junkets and meetings are being held.  In 1997, “The Apostle,” the exquisite film directed, written by and starring Robert Duvall, was the talk of the Toronto film fest after its world premiere the night before, but in fact, the buzz started partway through the film when October Films and Miramax began a bidding battle that has become the stuff of legend.

Duvall left the festival with his career reborn, the film, which he financed, was sold (to October), and the multi-hyphenate began winning critics awards for the film at year’s end. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association named him Best Actor that year and a few weeks later the National Society of Film Critics did the same. Though snubbed for a Golden Globe nomination, he was nominated by both the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy, but he eventually lost to Jack Nicholson in “As Good as It Get.”

The film eventually nailed down a solid $24 million at the box office and Duvall’s performance is considered by and large one of his best.  He came back to a couple of years later with his new film “Assassination Tango,” a failure, and he is here again with two films — John Hillcoat’s “The Road,” which I will write about later today, and “Get Low,” a film recalling shades of the 1997 fest as it has captured the conversation here.

When the ovation for the latter finally concluded last night at the public screening, words spread very quickly about the picture.  This morning another, more modest ovation greeted the film as the press applauded — something of a rarity.  And there is due cause.  Robert Duvall’s performance in “Get Low” is his best since “Broken Trail,” for which he won an Emmy Award as Best Actor.  It is one of those characters that he seems to have been born to play, a hermit, living alone in the woods for 40 years, the subject of gossip and scorn in a small town.

Set in the 1930s, the film is a wonderfu character study, dominated by Duvall’s performance, but filled with strong work from veteran actors including Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray.  Duvall portrays Felix Bush, a man with a past, and though there are many legends about said past, only he and an old preacher friend know precisely what it is that has driven him into seclusion.

Felixx approaches the local funderal director, Frank (Murray) about a living funeral, where he invites everyone who ever had a story to tell about him to tell it, and he himself will set the record straight. He will also auction off his land, more than 300 acres, for a five-dollar ticket. Thousands of dollars pour into the funeral home, but as the day gets closer, Felix begins to struggle with his past and the shame of what drove him away from society.

His bizarre friendship with a young man who works in the funeral home seems to keep him on the straight path, but the question remains: will he do as he has promised and relate his life to these people who claim to know him all too well?

The film reminds one of a Horton Foote piece:  a character, flawed and with a past, trying to come to terms with a history that has haunted him for most of his life. A lover of Foote’s work, Duvall was at once attracted to the role and gives it his all. He is, as he is in his best roles, remarkable, slipping under the skin of Felix and creating one of his most memorable characters.

As I interviewed Duvall in the Park Hyatt Hotel, there was a distribution deal taking place downstairs so there is a very good chance the film will be seen this fall.  If so, the landscape of the Best Actor race has just changed. I think Duvall has to be considered the frontrunner for this miraculous performance. Again, the man proves he is perhaps our greatest actor, and in the words of the great acting guru Sanford Meisner, has been for a very long time. In the 1960s, before he really broke through as an actor, Meisner said, “There are two great actors in America. The first is Brando, but his best work is behind him. The other is Robert Duvall.”

I will have an interview with Duvall and director Aaron Schneider soon.  For now, it’s off to “The Road.”

→ 12 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

12 responses so far

  • 1 9-13-2009 at 2:40 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    well then, people are starting to come outof no where, coolio, im still for viggo for now, but this sounds good, a little big fish like in ideas?

  • 2 9-13-2009 at 2:59 pm

    bradley said...

    How is Lucas Black in this?

  • 3 9-13-2009 at 5:06 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Entire cast very good.

  • 4 9-13-2009 at 6:47 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Glad to hear it, moreso since it seems like his Oscar potential for THE ROAD died down.

  • 5 9-13-2009 at 6:48 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    “The film reminds one of a Horton Foote piece..”

    Funny, I was thinking the same thing about halfway through your synopsis.

    So, if this buzz about Duvall is similar to his buzz for The Apostle, should we expect him to lose to a veteran actor re-playing his screen persona in an overpraised dramedy?

  • 6 9-13-2009 at 7:09 pm

    Bing147 said...

    So John, any chance that Murray or Spacek ends up in the mix?

  • 7 9-13-2009 at 8:29 pm

    Wiseacre said...

    If Duvall doesn’t win his second Oscar for this performance there is something deeply flawed in the Academy. I saw it last night at TIFF. I have sat through many world premieres at the festival over the years and I have never been as overwhelmed by a performance. And I was not alone: virtually everyone I spoke to afterwards felt the same way. I’m delighted the film is getting a distribution deal. Go see Duvall and understand why he’s the greatest film actor of his generation.

  • 8 9-14-2009 at 3:43 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Who knows Robert — the interesting thing is, knowing Duvall as I do, (which is a wonderful thing) he knew he was going to lose to Jack, he expected it and though he didn’t like it much, he smiled and took it like a good sport — he understands the game, and it is a game…right? How many great performances have lost to an inferior one?

  • 9 9-14-2009 at 3:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’ll just come out and say it — I’d have given it to Jack Nicholson that year too. I quite like it when the Academy acknowledges accomplished personality performances … it doesn’t happen all that often.

  • 10 9-14-2009 at 4:42 pm

    anne thompson said...

    somebody’s got to pick it up first!

  • 11 9-14-2009 at 5:43 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ John: You know Robert Duvall? Damn, I’m jealous. The biggest celebrity I ever knew was David Liebe Hart from the Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!. Anyway, I’m inclined to agree with you. It is just a game, and both actors in question have the title “Academy Award winner” anyway, and injustices happen all the time. The only frustrating thing is that a Best Actor win would have seriously raised the profile of The Apostle, which I think is (along with maybe Eve’s Bayou) the most underrated masterpiece of the 90’s, as opposed to a movie that I thought was totally overrated. Then again, I’m biased; I generally can’t stand James L. Brooks.

    @ Guy: I’d like to respond to what you said, except I’m not entirely sure what a “personality performance” is. Could you elaborate?

  • 12 9-15-2009 at 1:17 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Robert: Essentially, one that uses, and riffs off, a star’s persona rather than going in for the transformative, capital-A Acting that the voters usually cream themselves over. Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” is another example.