Thursday, April 9, 1998

Keep the faith

Robert Duvall never lost sight of his pet project, The Apostle

By NEAL WATSON -- Edmonton Sun

Brothers and sisters, on this fine day let's say a hallelujah for Brother Robert Duvall. Hallelujah, I say, for Brother Duvall who took on Hollywood's stogie-smoking studio satans and whupped them but good. Who needs $200 million and an ego the size of hell's square footage when the Almighty is on your side - sort of a celestial executive producer. It was Brother Duvall's calling to show us the way from development hell to those luxury screening rooms just beyond the pearly gates, my brothers and sisters.

Brother Duvall taught us that hard work was enough to vanquish the devils who told us that salvation was only $8 and a trip to Dante's Peak away.

I turn my back on these mercenary mephistopheles who send their henchmen, like Kevin Costner in The Postman, to tempt us. Say a prayer for Brother Duvall, the Apostle.

He didn't end up as Hollywood's king of the world, but the story of Robert Duvall and his quest to make The Apostle proves nice guys, with enough of their own cash, can still call the shots in Tinseltown.

Titanic director James Cameron stands to make $100 million US from his box-office behemoth, not to mention all those Oscars.

But Duvall's long struggle to bring The Apostle, which he wrote and directed and starred in, to the big screen is a much sweeter success story, and one that has already passed into Hollywood lore.

The actor, responsible for such indelible film portrayals as The Great Santini's Bull Meechum and Apocalypse Now's napalm-loving Lt.-Col. Kilgore, refused to yield his script about a tormented Pentecostal preacher to the rewrite studio gods. Said gods refused to finance the picture.

Duvall, as passionate about doing the story of Euliss (Sonny) Dewey his way as your average fire-and-brimstone preacher is about a Sunday morning, put up $5 million of his own money to make the movie, which opens in town tomorrow. The result: virtually universal critical acclaim, a fifth Oscar nomination for Duvall, solid box office and, happily, a cheque to cover the actor's own investment.

"I feel great about everything," said a friendly, relaxed-sounding Duvall over the phone from his Virginia farm earlier this week. "It's kind of a highlight. I accomplished something kind of unique."

The Apostle is an anomaly among the sub-genre of films about men of faith. This is not the story of a Jimmy Swaggert-like con-man, and it is not a film that refuses to accept that genuine faith is possible. Duvall said he didn't want to make another film about corruption and hypocrisy, in the tradition of Elmer Gantry.

"There's got to be a guy like Sonny somewhere - a very sincere guy that errs. And a good portion of the religious and secular communities have accepted the film."

Born in San Diego and raised in Virginia and Montana, Duvall says he had no personal experience with the kind of preaching we associate with the southern U.S. But filming in Arkansas 30 years ago, Duvall sat in the pews, enthralled, watching what he calls "the only truly American art form, other than some of our music."

While he nails the performance rhythms of the Pentecostal preacher with mesmerizing effect in The Apostle, Duvall likes to avoid the histrionics when it comes to his own beliefs.

"In a quiet way, I never stopped having faith," he says. "I do believe in what I believe. I believe in one god.

"I think sometimes you've got to entertain those beliefs in a quiet way. Sometimes when you beat on your chest, like some of these guys do, you leave yourself open."

Duvall's quiet lifestyle on his Virginia farm won't last much longer. He will be taking The Apostle to the Cannes Film Festival and there will be many more interviews - he points out there are more than 200 million Pentecostals worldwide.

He has two movies in the can, the asteroid disaster flick Deep Impact and the drama Civil Action, opposite John Travolta and written and directed by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List).

"As a hired hand, I still get good scripts,'' he says. "But as far as the kind of scripts along this (Apostle) line, it's something I might help to design."

He talks about a film centred around tango - one of Duvall's passions - and a project about soccer.

And, who knows, if the going gets tough in Hollywood, maybe Duvall will go his own way again.

Maybe he will write another cheque.

It depends on whether he's called once more.