THE LISTS: Top 10 Robert Duvall performances

Posted by · 8:06 am · September 29th, 2009

Robert Duvall in The Great SantiniWith “Get Low” bringing actor Robert Duvall back to the spotlight, and Sony’s purchase of the film no doubt landing him in the Oscar race for Best Actor (whether released this year or next), I thought perhaps a look back at the legend’s substantial carer and best performances might be fun.

Since his first brilliant turn as Boo Radley, both boogey man and savior to the children in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Duvall has been one of America’s greatest actors. A self-described late bloomer, he did not see great success until he was in his 30s, but once there he never stopped, giving us an array of brilliant performances that have made him one of the most beloved, finest actors in American history.

Over the years I have had the chance to spend some time with Duval and it should seem obvious by now that I admire the man. Sure there have been missteps along the way — what great actor does not err — but films like “Newsies,” “The Scarlett Letter” and “Kicking and Screaming” are few and far between in a career spanning more than 50 years.

With “Get Low,” a decent campaign should see the veteran actor with his seventh Oscar nomination, his fourth for Best Actor, and given the Academy’s wont for waxing sentimental or fixing past wrongs, they might just give it to him for having passed on the opportunity 12 years ago.

Here are my picks for his 10 best performances…

Robert Duvall in Rambling Rose10. “Rambling Rose” (1991)
In one of the best films of 1991, Duvall gives a wonderful performance as a courtly southern father and husband who takes into his home a nymphomaniac portrayed with brilliance by Laura Dern.  All hell breaks loose. Duvall is both funny and moving as the man torn by a sense of decency in the face of temptation. How the girls got nominated and Duvall did not is beyond me.  In fact, Duvall was ignored all the way across the board, no love from the critics organizations, the HFPA, nothing.

Robert Duvall in Get Low9. “Get Low” (2010?)
This year’s Toronto hit offers Duvall his best role in years as Felix, a mysterious old hermit of whom many tales have been told — except the truth. He emerges from hiding to plan his own funeral at which he will set the record straight. Set in the 1930s, the film is a fable about America in a very different time, and Duvall dominates the screen with a wonderful performance that sometimes leads us to believe he is crazy, haunted, or just deeply sad about his past.  The film is looking like a 2010 release, but whatever the time frame, it’s great work.

Robert Duval in Tomorrow8. “Tomorrow” (1972)
This was a tiny black and white film from 1972 in which Duvall portrays Jackson Fentry, the strange hero of Faulkner’s short story that was the basis for the film. After the death of his wife, whom he adored, nursing through her illness, Fentry targically loses custody of his son and watches the boy grow from afar, never telling him who he is. It’s a bleak picture, set during the depression, and indeed much of the film is depressing, but it is superbly acted and true to the source. An indie before the phrase was coined, it’s a small miracle.

Robert Duvall in The Great Santini7. “The Great Santini” (1980)
Lewis John Carlino’s film was Duvall’s first major leading role and he made the most of it as a bullying father and husband, a Marine who is a warrior, but away from that war does not understand society at all. In many ways this could be Kilgore after Vietnam. Santini’s greatest battle is with his eldest son, who he is in some sort of pathological competition with, all the while adoring the boy and trying to earn his respect. It’s a tough watch, because Santini is abusive, unpleasant, referring to his kids as “sports fans” and “hogs,” but Duvall is brilliant.

(from left) Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro in True Confessions6. “True Confessions” (1981)
This was one of the great film noirs of the 1980s. Too bad nobody saw it. Duvall and Robert De Niro portray brothers, Duvall a brash, foul-mouthed cop, De Niro an ambitious priest. When a murder seems to involve his brother, or at least his brother seems aware of it, Duvall makes it clear he is going for the killer no matter what. The film is beautifully acted, with a lovely scene at the end in which the brothers make their peace with one another.  Duvall won Best Actor at the Venice film fest, but nothing more.

Robert Duvall in The Godfather5. “The Godfather” (1972)/”The Godfather Part II” (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part 1970s crime epic saw Duvall as consigliare Tom Hagen, and perhaps the greatest tribute we can give him for his performance is how deeply he is missed in the third film, which would have pitted Michael against Tom in a stunning betrayal. As the self-described gopher for the two Dons, Duvall is very much in the background, loyal, wise and forever grateful to the Don (Brando) who saved his life.  But he cannot understand, and is resentful of Michael for shutting him out, or at least trying to.  The actor was only Oscar-nominated for the original film, unfortunately.

Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies4. “Tender Mercies” (1983)
Duvall finally won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his quiet and tender performance in this Bruce Beresford film.  He was pitch-perfect as a washed up country singer, recovering from alcoholism, finding a second lease on life with a pretty young widow and her son who run a gas station in the middle of Texas. The pain and regret are etched into his face throughout the film, but there is gentle joy that breaks through from time to time when he looks at his new wife and realizes it is turning around. Duvall did all his own singing, earning praise from singers Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.

Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now3. “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
In Francis Coppola’s Vietnam War film, Duvall gives, to my mind, the best supporting actor portrayal ever.  And as brilliant as the film is, it seems to never recover from his impact on it. Brash, bold, strutting on the beach like a vain peacock as bombs explode around him and bullets whiz by, he is the personification of the madness of Vietnam. And we cannot forget he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. That sad look of regret on his face when he utters his last line –“Someday this war’s gonna end.” — and walks off screen is stunning.  He was nominated for an Oscar he should have won.

Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove2. “Lonesome Dove” (1989)
This  was not a feature film released in theaters, but it is a work of art and perhaps the finest performance ever given by an actor on the small screen. As Gus McCrae, the brave old Texas Ranger seeking one last adventure, Duvall is superb, conjuring up the image of the western hero as we hope they were, fearless but fair, a purely decent man. The actor believes this to be his finest work, saying boldly, “The English can have their Hamlet and King Lears, I’ll play Gus McCrae anytime.” Indeed.  He was nominated for an Emmy but lost out to James Woods in a film certainly less iconic.

Robert Duvall in The Apostle1. “The Apostle” (1997)
Probably no surprise here.  Duvall as a flawed preacher seeking to redeem himself after murdering his wife’s lover, both Cain and Abel, his character flees into the wildnerness to build a church in a backwoods community to atone. Portrayed with alarming intensity and volcanic energy, Duvall dominates the film from beginning to end, his eyes ablaze with the spirit of the Lord.  It’s an astonishing performance that stands as one of the best ever put on film. The fact he directed and wrote it, not to mention financed it: the accomplishment of his career.

What about you.  What are your favorite Robert Duvall performances?  Have your say in the comments section below!

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19 responses so far

  • 1 9-29-2009 at 8:31 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    When I listened to the DVD commentary for The Apostle, I was shocked to hear about how he paid for the film because of his inability to find a studio willing to finance it.

    I mean, you’d think all someone like him would have to do is walk into a studio exec’s office and say, “Hi, I’m Robert Duvall and I need money for a film,” to get a project of his financed.

  • 2 9-29-2009 at 8:46 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I would definitely have found room for Open Range, but I know it was close for you.

  • 3 9-29-2009 at 8:48 am

    Gustavo H.R. said...

    Jesus, no NETWORK?

  • 4 9-29-2009 at 8:55 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Oh shit, and Network. My favorite performance from the film.

    “It’s a big, fat, big-titted hit!”

    But basically it just proves the guy is a national treasure with way too many wonderful performances to fill a top 10 with.

  • 5 9-29-2009 at 8:57 am

    Vito said...

    What a great list. You reminded me just how amazing he is. I need to watch some Duvall.

  • 6 9-29-2009 at 9:52 am

    Chris138 said...

    I agree with Vito, after reading this I think I’m gonna watch some Duvall movies this week.

  • 7 9-29-2009 at 10:04 am

    Rob hackett said...

    A Civil Action.

    Has one knockout scene.

  • 8 9-29-2009 at 10:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Excellent call on “Rambling Rose,” John. I’d certainly have found room for “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” in the top half of my list — such undervalued work from Duvall and Richard Harris both.

    “Apocalypse Now” would top my list by a country mile. I wish I loved “The Apostle” the way you do, but I’m afraid I only see a lot of brilliant technique there and not enough heart. Super list, though.

  • 9 9-29-2009 at 10:58 am

    John H. Foote said...

    There were so many I could not include gang – “Network”, “Open Range”, “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway”, his Showtime movie “Broken Trail”, “M*A*S*H”??? I mean I could have done a twenty five greatest Duvall performances and gone right back to “To Kill a Mockingbird”…good calls all gang.

  • 10 9-29-2009 at 11:00 am

    John H. Foote said...

    And Robert Hamer — keep in mind he went looking for the money AFTER he had won the Academy Award!!!!!!

  • 11 9-29-2009 at 12:44 pm

    Marlowe said...

    Call me crazy, and I know it definitely doesn’t make the cultural/cinematic contribution the above did, but I thought he hit all the right notes in “Secondhand Lions”. (The fact that it also featured Michael Caine credibly playing Southern is another matter entirely)

  • 12 10-20-2009 at 7:49 am

    Karen said...

    I love Duvall’s movies. My favorite is The Apostle
    And then all the many others!!! Tomorrow is wonderful and also Tender Mercies and the list goes on. Duvall is brilliant because he is so REAL

  • 13 10-20-2009 at 3:25 pm

    Brian said...

    I love duvall…i agree with most of the list. And i agree with your comment that you could have done another 10 easy. What comes to mind most about duvall is the character he brings to films where his roles aren’t the leads. What he brought to solid films like the paper, the natural, we own the night, falling down or civil action. Out of those i guess civil action is the best so i would have put it on the list. And i would have included open range, a great performance in an underrated film. But i’d have a very hard time replacing anything, i haven’t seen get low so i would replace that and tomorrow i guess. But no arguements here, the list is great and duvall is one of the true greats!

  • 14 10-28-2009 at 11:07 am

    Q-Mann said...

    Even in questionable fare like “Gone in 60 Seconds” Duvall turns his material to gold. Great list for a true great.

  • 15 1-06-2011 at 2:21 pm

    Wilborn said...

    One of America’s treasures as an actor but
    “lonesome Dove” is my favorite by far. As a native Texas with ancestry dating to the time period protrayed, I thought Duvall made us understand that there could be a tough guy who could bloody a surly bartender’s nose and win the heart of a “lady of the evening” through kindness and wit. Just watched it again in BluRay and loved it even more if possible.

  • 16 1-15-2011 at 11:06 pm

    luckylou1111 said...

    It’s a shame that to win an award in Hollywood you not only need to have the talent but it appears that one must also be popular. Popularity trumping talent is not new but we see that if one runs with the in crowd, e.g attends Laker games, Hollywood parties, and chats it up with Jay, then talent notwithstanding, multiple Oscars will adorn one’s mantle. Well, I could give you a laundry list of notable perfomances over the past years that were more than worthy of the receipt of our man Oscar,but since they only give it away once a year we must satisfy ourselves with the realization that in our opinion Robert Duvall is recognized as one of the greats of all time. Time will indubitably tell this tale and I for one will exclaim that I was in the know.

  • 17 12-23-2011 at 4:57 pm

    DaveZX said...

    Not his best movie by critical acclaim, but “Second Hand Lions” had to be one of the funniest movies ever made. I still laugh just thinking about it. It’s a movie the whole family can enjoy. Don’t pass it up.
    The man definitely has talent.

  • 18 1-29-2012 at 1:33 pm

    Lucas Müller said...

    I must confess I haven’t seen enough of his films. To me, what’s striking about the Godfathers is that he’s the only one where you are not thinking that the actor does a great job, simply because all you see is the character. In movies packed with monumental performances, that’s how great he is! Lonesome Dove ties in as an equal, becausse it’s a role that ecompasses all of his qualitie. Wise, sad, at times joyfull, he likes to stay slightly off the action. You just fall in love with the character. His death scene is one of the most beautifullly played scenes ever seen if you ask me! Long live Lonesome Dove!

  • 19 7-13-2014 at 6:07 pm

    James Crawford said...

    Like so many here say, just about everything he’s done was destined to wind up being many peoples’ favorite. I love almost all of his films, but ‘The Apostle’ has always been my favorite film of all time, all actors. He really ropes you into those emotions…he’s the number one character actor of his generation and maybe the entire last 40+ years.