Sunday January 10, 1999

Doing the Hollywood shuffle

Robert Duvall tangos around moviemaking's ups and downs

By BOB THOMPSON -- Toronto Sun

  HOLLYWOOD -- He's not exactly a Virginia squire, but Robert Duvall does have an 80-hectare farm in that state. He uses the spread for his base, and the breeding and riding of horses.
 In other words, 67-year-old Duvall is a country gent stranger in this city slicker movie land when he is here to meet, to deal, to cajole or, in this case, to promote his latest movie, A Civil Action.
 Duvall is good at all four of those things, mostly because he is as honest and as straightforward as an actor can be. He has learned to roll with the sniping, the pettiness, the dishonesty and the self-indulgence.
 "Yeah, uh-huh," says a smirking Duvall at a Century City hotel. "I've been acting for many years. I guess you learn a few things, or at least get taught them."
 What most moviemakers have learned about Duvall is this: If you have a pivotal co-starring role in your picture, get Robert Duvall.
 Writer-director Steve Zaillian pursued him for a specific portrayal in A Civil Action, and was rewarded for it with what most critics are calling an award-winning performance. Duvall will likely be Oscar-nominated for his part as the quirky company attorney battling John Travolta's personal injury lawyer in an environmental case.
 If he does get the Oscar nod, it would be his second Academy Award nomination in a row. Last year, Duvall was honoured with a best actor nomination for his self-financed directorial effort, The Apostle. He eventually lost out to Jack Nicholson's As Good As It Gets role.
 What The Apostle did for Duvall was add to his impressive acting stature established with The Godfather and solidified with Apocalypse Now.
 Before that he had made a name for himself as the pious-lecherous Frank Burns in the movie M*A*S*H*. His first movie part came in 1962 as To Kill A Mockingbird's mysterious hulk Boo Radley.
 Like Duvall says, "I've been acting for many years." And still he acts when he wants to and does what he wants to.
 "Yeah," he says. "I pretty much do whatever suits me."
 If that means earning a huge paycheque in a big-budget disaster film like Deep Impact, so be it. If that means hustling to make a film about his other obsession, the tango, then he'll do that, too.
 Presently, and in keeping with his particular and peculiar tastes, Duvall has signed to star in a movie about soccer -- in Glasgow of all places.
 "It's in the very tentative stages," reports Duvall. "I'm the coach of a fictional amateur team that plays for the Scottish Cup."
 Duvall has already made some fact-finding trips to Glasgow. "Interesting people," says the understated San Diego-born son of a military man with some Celtic blood on his mother's side. "Beef is nice in Glasgow. Smoked haddock, too."
 Sounds like the on-location movie might be fun, but Duvall shrugs in response.
 "We're waiting for the production company to tell us to get started. They've been very vague."
 Meanwhile, he's still pushing for his tango picture, and he's still keeping in tango shape by dancing as often as he can with his Argentinian girlfriend, Lucianna Pedrazza.
 "It's a year or so away," says Duvall who will star and might direct the film scheduled to be shot in Argentina. "It's about a modern day event there, in the world of the tango."
 He chuckles at the thought of showing the movie in Argentina, not to mention showcasing his tango abilities.
 "I dance okay," he says. "But even if I do, the Argentinians still pick out the faults. Everybody rips each other, really rips each other, on the tango down there.
 "It's the only place I've been where style is everything. I was eating in a cafeteria with a truck driver friend of mine once, and he corrected my table manners."
 Unlike the people who populate the movie industry, Argentinians say what they think in front of you, not behind you.
 "Amen," Duvall says.
 "Y'know, The Apostle grossed close to $25 million, and it cost $5 million to make. It would've made more, I think, if they had showed it in more theatres.
 "And then you would think that the Oscar would've helped with some leverage getting financing for my tango thing, but it hasn't."
 Duvall laughs off his last statement. He's amused, not angry, by the contradictions of his chosen profession -- moviemaking.
 "Oh yeah," he says, "Definitely. Yeah, definitely. Nothing makes any sense out here.
 "Yeah, I remember one production company guy told me, 'Hey, if you had brought us Tender Mercies, we would've financed it.'
 "This is after it did okay, and I got an Oscar for that country singer written by Horton Foote.
 "So I brought them The Apostle, and they turned it down."
 As he says, he's been in the film business for a long time.
 "You persist, you struggle, and you don't take anything for granted," he concludes. "In the long run, it makes the outcome even better."

 BORN: San Diego. His father eventually became a rear-admiral posted in Washington, D.C., just before Pearl Harbour.
 ACTING: Began his career in off-Broadway during the '50s, and landed the coveted role in the original cast of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge.