In Contention

Robert Duvall takes aim at “actor’s enemy” Stanley Kubrick

Posted by · 9:46 am · December 2nd, 2010

It was interesting this morning to see Robert Duvall’s recent comments on Stanley Kubrick’s process with actors making the rounds.  Duvall chimed in with trademark candor at The Hollywood Reporter’s Actors Round Table when the issue of exhaustive takes came up.  “The Social Network” director David Fincher is known for doing quite a few, and Kubrick was infamous for it.

The actor called the work of Kubrick actors “the worst performances I’ve ever seen in movies” and even went so far as to call the director an “actor’s enemy.”  I’d maintain that Kubrick’s films have rarely been about performance above formalism, but that’s me.  Though the comments did remind me of a similar aside I had with actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

I sat down with the “Inception” and “Shutter Island” star over the weekend to discuss, mainly, the latter and his work with director Martin Scorsese over the years.  In the midst of detailing his on-set process with the director, DiCaprio went off on a small tangent about the potential value of exhaustive takes and I thought it would make a nice rebuttal to Duvall’s point of view.  Check out the audio after the jump.


Of course, I think there is plenty of truth to what Duvall says.  It really just depends on the process and the kind of portrayal a director is looking for.  But it’s worthy of a spirited debate, so what do you have to say about it?

Check back next week for a piece built around my talk with DiCaprio.  It was an enlightening 45 or 50 minute discussion covering all bases.

[Photo: The Hollywood Reporter]

→ 54 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

54 responses so far

  • 1 12-02-2010 at 9:50 am

    Ben said...

    Yeah, I’m with Leo here. Kubrick’s films were never about the performance, and while I agree he may have been an actor’s worst enemy in the sense he made their life hell, he still extracted some very strong performances even with the aforementioned formalism.

  • 2 12-02-2010 at 9:53 am

    JJ1 said...

    Loved Duvall’s openness in that roundtable. I came away with good vibes from all the guys, but Firth seemed a bit crabby. Still love him.

    Can’t wait to hear the DiCaprio piece.

  • 3 12-02-2010 at 9:53 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    If the directors that do lots of takes include Kubrick, Fincher, Scorsese and I think I’ve read Malick as well.

    Then shooting lots of takes must be a good thing simply based on that list of names.

  • 4 12-02-2010 at 10:01 am

    Maxim said...

    It’s one thing to wrongly dismiss Kubricks’s work as being about formalism and not performance (Dr. Stranglove is prime example of a movie where acting was the foremost element among other examples) but

    This is just idiotic.

    What else, a director who rehearses or dares give his actor’s any, well, directions is an actor’s enemy too?

    Look I am not that high on the literal interpretation of the auteur theory either but man, if an actor really feels that the director is being too creatively limiting then it is your job to convince him that you are right and he is not. It’s as simple as that.

  • 5 12-02-2010 at 10:03 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Maxim: I didn’t dismiss Kubrick’s work, I said his work was “rarely” about performance above formalism, and I don’t think that’s a stretch, nor is it a slight. Don’t put words into my mouth, please. Nuance.

  • 6 12-02-2010 at 10:11 am

    Markku said...

    Although I disagree, I see where Duvall’s coming from. He is known to be a big fan of Ken Loach’s naturalism and did something similar in The Apostle. His own low-key style is far removed, even in the crazy-ass Apocalypse Now, from kubrickian histrionics.

    But different styles work for different filmmakers. Kubrick famously said to Jack Nicholson that a performance doesn’t necessarily have to be naturalistic, as long as it is interesting. I think that’s a pretty good summation of what makes Kubrick’s films so good.

  • 7 12-02-2010 at 10:15 am

    Dominik said...

    Kubrick´s movies are truly neither character studies nor performance-driven, but nevertheless we can find some great performances, like:
    Peter Sellers in “Lolita”, “Dr. Strangelove”
    Malcom MC Dowell, “Clockwork Orange”
    Kirk Douglas, “Paths of Glory”

    I honestly don´t care how Kubrick treated his actors, I only care about the quality of his work!

  • 8 12-02-2010 at 10:22 am

    Hero said...

    Loved Duvall in the roundtable. Eschewing the BS is a nice change.

    As far as Kubrick, well, I think Duvall is on to something. I think the lack of focus on character and performance is why I find myself admiring his films far more than I like them. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule–I do love Full Metal Jacket, after all.

  • 9 12-02-2010 at 10:23 am

    Maxim said...

    Fair enough, Kris. And, honestly, I did a poor job wording the first part of that sentence as what I meant is closer to what you have now reinstated. That said, I disagree.

    Kubrick was a great director of actors and one of the reasons Kirk Douglass has admired him so much. I don’t think formalism or histronics got in a way of very finely tuned performances in Lolita, Path of Glory or, perhaps especially A Clockwork Orange.

    Sure there was a lot of, what I’d like to call cinematacality in some of his films but it was because they called for it. They were different beasts and whether they would have benefited from a different approach is highly questionable. Nevertheless, there is undeniably naturalism in a more traditionally heroic film like Path of Glory (MacReady gives an awesomely hateful performance there). And think how wonderfully natural the wife character is in Lolita, contrasted with someone like Sellers. That kind of, very intentional contrast, tells me that Kubrick didn’t lose track of what acting was about.

    Furthermore, I am not going to give Duvall any room to stand on here. Different projects call on different approaches. Saying that an inherently theatrical but neverthelles chilling acting in “Shining” was somehow a threat is just missing the point.

  • 10 12-02-2010 at 10:30 am

    Maxim said...

    It really ironic to me that some of the most unforced performances I’d ever seen were in a Kubrick film. I mean that honestly.

    The images that stuck with me were of Floyd’s daughter in 2001 during that phone conversation scene (yes, that counts!) and, ironically, the scene in Dr. Strangelove where Sellers as President is talking on the phone with Kremlin.

    There is also that haunting moment in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is standing on the bridge right before he is recognized by one of the people his gang attacked earlier in the film.

  • 11 12-02-2010 at 10:41 am

    Loyal said...

    I obviously disagree with Duvall since I worship the altar of Kubrick.


    I absolutely love Duvall’s candor. Yeah, there are definitely some downsides to aging but being able to say whatever the fuck you want is a huge bonus.

  • 12 12-02-2010 at 10:43 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Formalism never got in the way, but my point is I think about the formalism of Kubrick cinema before I think about performances. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the performances were wonderful, because by and large, I think they were. I was simply noting that for my experience of his work, it was a lesser component.

    After all, he is my favorite filmmaker, so I couldn’t possibly disregard all facets of his work.

  • 13 12-02-2010 at 10:53 am

    Graysmith said...

    I don’t think there’s any right or wrong here.

    The way Kubrick worked isn’t the way Duvall wants to work. It may not be fair to say that Kubrick was an “enemy” to ALL actors, because there’s surely many who prefer it the way Kubrick did it, and those people would probably consider very improvisational directors to be their “enemy” because it doesn’t suit their way.

  • 14 12-02-2010 at 11:02 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    I not a huge Kubrick fan, but any number of performances given by the actors in Kubrick’s films are better than most of Duvall’s performances (especially Get Low). Other than The Godfather and his small role in To Kill a Mockingbird, I can’t think of any Duvall performances that really impressed me (and yes I have seen Apocalypse Now and The Apostle and thought he overacted in both), so I am going to have to side with Kubrick and many of the other directors who don’t bow down to the alter of actors.

  • 15 12-02-2010 at 11:04 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...



  • 16 12-02-2010 at 11:06 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Tomkat and Suri would not exist if not for Kubrick. Discuss.

  • 17 12-02-2010 at 11:08 am

    Keil Shults said...

    I never trust a blurb on a DVD cover unless it has the name “Patriotsfan” under it.

  • 18 12-02-2010 at 11:16 am

    Maxim said...

    Yeah, Kris I wasn’t specifically trying to counter you there this time. And I certainly get what you are trying to say even as I view things somewhat differently.

    Kubrick is certainly one of my favorites too and it really would not have been so if I didn’t connect with the actors. Cold calculation and artificiality tends to leave me cold.

  • 19 12-02-2010 at 11:20 am

    Keil Shults said...

    You can’t save lives without a sterile operating room.

  • 20 12-02-2010 at 11:27 am

    Maxim said...

    I guess I am just trying to point out that become significantly more formal in the later post Clockwork stage of his career. I think that this shift needs to be acknowledged.

  • 21 12-02-2010 at 11:29 am

    Keil Shults said...

    I just like the sound of my own font.

  • 22 12-02-2010 at 11:29 am

    Maxim said...

    Keil, no offense but your lame oneliners are getting tiring.

  • 23 12-02-2010 at 11:31 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Hey, you’re the one with the name Maxim.

  • 24 12-02-2010 at 11:33 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Sorry, I like to goof around sometimes, but there’s usually a truth behind it. I didn’t mean to annoy you. Hug?

  • 25 12-02-2010 at 11:40 am

    Maxim said...

    I’m not annoyed. High five, Keil.

  • 26 12-02-2010 at 12:02 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Thanks. I’m just getting squirrely waiting around for the NBR results.

  • 27 12-02-2010 at 12:05 pm

    M.Harris said...

    I think it’s all about what a Director is trying to get out of an Actor. Kubrick was Kubrick. Hell! He had Shelly Duvall and Jack Nickelson supposedely break the record for takes(don’t quote me if I’m off by a digit or two) with 125. For that scene in “The Shining” when Duvall was backing up the stairs; swinging a bat.

    And to counter Robert Duvall’s point; Shelly Duvall stated, “In The Making of The Shining” that she resented Kubrick at times during the shoot; but! While working with him she had learned the most about acting; then all of her other previous Directors combined. She also mentioned that she had grown to respect and like him as a person during the shoot.

    I like Robert Duvall’s candor; but! That’s why they are called Directors. They are in charge. Aren’t they?

  • 28 12-02-2010 at 12:37 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    I just can’t imagine how someone could describe the work of Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, the entire supporting cast of Spartacus, Peter Sellers and George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Vincent D’Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, and arguably the most iconic performance of Jack Nicholson’s career “the worst performances I’ve ever seen in movies.”

    Kubrick may have been an “actor’s enemy” as far as causing them stress, but the results, as far as I’m concerned, refute Duvall’s argument and then some.

  • 29 12-02-2010 at 1:20 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Greeing with Robert Hamer — Malcolm MacDowell’s jaunty, horrifying work in A Clockwork Orange and Nicholson in The Shining are two of the finest performances on film — I love Duvall, but in every conversation with him have picked up on a hostility towards some directors, certainly not Altman or Coppola, but anyone who discussed acting with him or talked the part had better be ready for a discussion — was on set with him during John Q and saw him work, he likes to do his own thing, be trusted to do so and left the hell alone — he might be the finest actor in movie history, but he’s dead wrong about the acting in the Kubrick films — dead wrong — not everyone is terrific on the first few takes, and as an actor he should be generous enough to recognize that — it’s not always about him.

  • 30 12-02-2010 at 1:20 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Greeing with Robert Hamer — Malcolm MacDowell’s jaunty, horrifying work in A Clockwork Orange and Nicholson in The Shining are two of the finest performances on film — I love Duvall, but in every conversation with him have picked up on a hostility towards some directors, certainly not Altman or Coppola, but anyone who discussed acting with him or talked the part had better be ready for a discussion — was on set with him during John Q and saw him work, he likes to do his own thing, be trusted to do so and left the hell alone — he might be the finest actor in movie history, but he’s dead wrong about the acting in the Kubrick films — dead wrong — not everyone is terrific on the first few takes, and as an actor he should be generous enough to recognize that — it’s not always about him.

  • 31 12-02-2010 at 1:31 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    Kris: I may be forgetting some great Duvall performances, so since you obviously disagree with my assessment of Duvall, what are some of your favorite of his performances? Maybe you can change my mind.

  • 32 12-02-2010 at 1:48 pm

    Rashad said...

    Sellers in Lolita may be one of the most annoying characters to ever grace the screen.

    Nicholson’s over the top performance isn’t anything great to behold.

    Duvall is right.

  • 33 12-02-2010 at 2:10 pm

    Danny King said...

    Will your DiCaprio piece have the full audio or will it be more like your standard interview pieces in the past?

  • 34 12-02-2010 at 2:24 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Danny: It’ll be a written piece but I’ll include the audio as well, I’m thinking.

    Patriotsfan: For me, he rarely fails to captivate. Hell, I love him in Days of Thunder, acting opposite a friggin’ car. But in addition to the obvious ones (Godfather, Apostle, Apocalypse, Tender Mercies), I also love him in The Great Santini, Network, Falling Down and just last year in The Road, just off the top of my head.

  • 35 12-02-2010 at 2:51 pm

    Jacob S. said...

    Sounds like Robert Duvall would like working with Clint Eastwood. Doesn’t Eastwood usually do one or two takes and say “good enough”?

  • 36 12-02-2010 at 3:28 pm

    Marcus said...

    I just think the moderator is a jackass. really. he’s the wrong person for this.

  • 37 12-02-2010 at 3:31 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    He was good in The Natural, too.

  • 38 12-02-2010 at 4:13 pm

    Matt King said...

    The thing I got from that roundtable was the one take improvised documentary style of Blue Valentine from Ryan Gosling. Honestly, every time somebody mentions that movie it makes me feel two things: excitement to see the movie, and annoyance that it probably won’t come to Edmonton, Canada for a long while.

  • 39 12-02-2010 at 4:20 pm

    jwp said...

    Robert Duvall will always be a well-regarded and highly respected artist , but his enormous ego is beyond annoying. In every interview I have seen of Mr. Duvall, he always bad-mouthing someone or he gripping about some irrevelant issue. He seems very similar to the irksome characters he portrays.

    P.S. He should have won the Oscar for “The Apostle”.

  • 40 12-02-2010 at 4:56 pm

    Andrew M said...

    I love Gosling and Ruffolo start cracking up when Duvall goes into his rant. I love Duvall, but I fully disagree with him. Almost every actor who has worked with Kubrick or Fincher has said that doing a bunch of takes helped them. Also, saying that The Shinning and A Clockwork Orange contained some of the worst performances ever is a little silly. I looks like Gosling thinks so too.

  • 41 12-02-2010 at 5:48 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “he might be the finest actor in movie history”

    I know it’s simply an opinion but how can someone believe in the best of (fill in the blanket) of any craft? Art is so subjective and the clichés concerning one man’s garbage being another’s treasure consistently rears its head whenever I read a person’s stating “the greatest” “whoever” “ever” –ed (it always causes me to go seriously)?

    Stanley Kubrick is an SOB. I know auteur[s] receive a pass in this department because their work is viewed as being of another caliber but that never excuses the awfulness a madman/genius/egomaniac/spoiled filmmaker does to his cast and crew.

    Robert Duvall prefers not to see film acting as life or death (Christian Bale) and I like that.

  • 42 12-02-2010 at 6:31 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’ve spoken to Duvall at length a number of times and the word “ego” doesn’t ever even pop into my head. Ornery? Sure. But I think he’s just overly honest.

  • 43 12-02-2010 at 6:53 pm

    Bobmcbob said...

    duvall’s right

  • 44 12-02-2010 at 7:05 pm

    BulgingThrobbingShroom said...

    Right on what? That Kubrick is the enemy of actors? Sir, you are the enemy of the brain.

  • 45 12-02-2010 at 7:38 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    Kris: I definitely agree on the two Godfather films (which I think is his best work), but as I stated earlier, I’m not too hot on his work in The Apostle or Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, I still have not got around to seeing Tender Mercies, Network, or The Great Santini, so maybe my opinion will change after I see those films.

    I thought he was fine in Falling Down, but nothing special, and I do have to agree he was pretty good in his small part in The Road. I actually also enjoyed his few scenes in Crazy Heart (although I didn’t like the movie), and that got me thinking. I guess I like Duvall when he has smaller, almost cameo like parts, but when he is the larger focus of a film, his style tends to get stale, but I know I am in the minority on this issue.

    By the way, have you seen his HBO movie (I think?) Stalin, where he plays Joseph Stalin? I appreciated someone making a film detailing the evils of Stalinist Russia (Hollywood seems to think only Hitler was capable of mass murder), but Duvall was not the right person to play Stalin in my opinion.

  • 46 12-02-2010 at 7:40 pm

    austin111 said...

    Damn, can’t see how anyone could not be moved by any number of Duvall performances. Been watching the guy since he was in early TV stuff like Twilight Zone, etc. My feeling is that he has a very simple but deeply felt way of “being” when he is in a film. Much as Tommy Lee Jones, another actor who just inhabits and can fill the screen in a way that others just can’t. But I love Kubrick’s films and quite a few of the performances he pulled out of his actors. I think that DiCaprio is right that Kubrick could absolutely exhaust his actors to get what he considered the right take. It is, however, a completely different way of inhabiting a role than Duvall is used to so I understand what Duvall’s talking about. He would have walked off a Kubrick set exasperated by the director I expect, if he had ever had an opportunity to work with him.

  • 47 12-02-2010 at 8:02 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I hate to say it, but I also find Duvall to be better in supporting roles.

    I think he CAN be great, and often enough. But I’ve seen some ‘misses’ from him, too. Just my opinion, of course.

    Recently, I really thought he nailed his cameo in The Road, as well as his Lead in Get Low. My fave performance of his was probably Apocalypse Now (again, supporting).

  • 48 12-02-2010 at 8:34 pm

    JR said...

    Much as I’ve loved Duvall in many movies, I still believe his best work to be in “Lonesome Dove.” Must be on to something since it’s the actor’s favorite…

  • 49 12-03-2010 at 5:57 am

    John H. Foote said...

    “The British can have their Hamlet and their Macbeth”, Duvall told me, “I played Augustus McCrae in LOnesome Dove.”
    The actor loved the role, loved the American western, and has given a couiple of great performances in westerns since with Open Range (2003) and Broken Trail (2006). And I must agree with Kris, have spoke with him several times, and never encountered ego…just a man very proud of his craft and aware of what his strengths are as an actor. Some actors need a lot of guidamnce from their director, Duvall doesn’t and expects the director to respect his space. Sometimes being a great director is knowing when to back off and be quiet. Eastwood hires the actors and expects them tpo show up ready to work…he does not offer a great deal of directorial advice. As professionals he chose them for a reason and expects them to know what they are doing. He’s there if they need him, but does not intrude, which is why actors revere him.

  • 50 12-03-2010 at 7:09 am

    Keil Shults said...

    If any of you reading this thread haven’t seen Network, get to it.


    And if you haven’t seen the first two Godfather films, well…you have no business being on the computer when you could be viewing two of the greatest films ever made. Meet me back here in 375 minutes and we’ll shake hands.

  • 51 12-03-2010 at 9:38 am

    sosgemini said...

    I just want to point out that my take on Gosling and Ruffulo’s awkward laughing had nothing to do with Duvall’s opinion and everything to do with Duvall having the balls to go there.

    These actors, throughout the entire interview, took pains to be PC and not offend the Hollywood establishment. They tucked their dicks way way deep into their pants and then Duvall whipped his out and beat them all down. Loved it!!!

  • 52 12-03-2010 at 8:12 pm

    austin111 said...

    To me it’s no surprise that Duvall loves westerns because he has the ability to take on the mythic persona that is obviously so much a part of that genre. I remember him in a western where he played Jesse James in a supporting role (long before The Assassination of Jesse James came along) as a kind of sociopathic killer. Until the latter film I kind of viewed that as the most realistic and definitive portrait of the famed outlaw I’d seen.
    sosgemini, Gosling and Ruffalo were properly deferential to Duvall, imo. He is, after all, a very respected elderly statesman actor. So he’s entitled to openly state whatever he wishes. They, on the other hand, probably both respect the work of Kubrick. They’d sound idiotic otherwise.

  • 53 5-30-2011 at 8:58 am

    DERR UFO said...

    I know for a fact there is a campaign to make Kubrick the new 21st century “4 Letter word” due to the fact that the truth is getting out of clues left in the movie the SHINING as well possibly the 2001 movie on how Kubrick aided or actually created ALL of the NASA moon trip films right here on Earth. My work to reveal the clues is on youtube at DERRUFO360. I am sure my videos will be censored from people seeing them, in many case less than 40 people have seen the videos there.