A Chameleon's Craft

Oscar-winner Robert Duvall is not a movie star; he's an *actor*.
I love the smell of napalm in the morning...it smells like victory.  -Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now."
In Malibu, the morning after the Oscars, there are no chemical scents in the air.  But the smell of victory fills the secluded, rented house where Robert Duvall, just awarded a best actor Oscar for his performance as Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies," is celebrating.  His wife, actress Gail Youngs, is fielding phone calls.  Outside, several large and hardy Texas pals cavort in the sun; inside, their subdued wives sit with noses buried in magazines.  The night before, Duvall couldn't get all his country friends into the post Oscar ball.  So he left, reluctantly passing up the food ("I love rack of lamb intensely') and took his very un-Hollywoodish entourage over to Johnny Cash's bungalow to feast on 27 hamburgers.
Country Singer:  Duvall's mixed feelings about Hollywood were perfectly evident in his ambivalent acceptance speech; he allowed that the honor of the Oscar for his performance as the recovering alcoholic country singer meant no more to him than the validation he got from real country singers like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.  If Hollywood has always stood for glamour and larger-than-life emotions, Duvall stands for the opposite.  "Moviemakers talk about a higher level of reality.  But I don't think there's anything bigger than life.  I mean, life is so rich, I don't think you should tamper with it," he says.  Keep it real:  that's the Duvall esthetic, and by devoting himself to scrupulous, egoless authenticity he has become the most respected character actor of his generation.  He's an actor's actor, who thinks an actor should never appear to be acting on the screen.  When he directed "Angelo, My Love," his documentary-style fiction about urban gypsies, he shouted his credo to leading man Steve Tsigonoff:  "No frigging acting!"
Duvall will never be a movie star.  A star, by definition, is always greater than the sum of his part or parts.  His personality spills over the boundary of his role, filling in the cracks with myth.  Duvall, in contrast, exorcises his own personality when he plays a part.  Is the "real" Robert Duvall the methodical, efficient consiglieri in "The Godfather"?  The competitive, macho pilot in "The Great Santini"?  The obdurate, loyal cotton farmer with the deep, backwoods drawl in the Faulknerian "Tomorrow"?  The tough Catholic cop in "True Confessions"?  The rabid war-lover in "Apocalypse Now"?  Inward, tight-lipped Mac Sledge?  Obviously the wrong question to ask.
It is sheer speculation, but perhaps Duvall, who was born in San Diego in 1931, first learned his chameleon's tricks as the child of a rear admiral, forced to adapt to new roles as the family shunted from base to base.  He went to Principia College in Elsah, Ill., then studied acting at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse in New York under the GI Bill.
His obvious affinity with Southern rural characters comes, he says, from his roots -- east Texas on his mother's side, Virginia on his father's.  "Tender Mercies" didn't get the country out of his system.  He's currently looking for financial backers for a movie he's written about a Pentecostal preacher, in which he will also star.  "I've done more research for the part than any other." he says.  He's about to fly to Nashville to record an album of country and Western songs.  He plays a tape of a single he's cut, and the voice is not like Mac Sledge's in "Tender Mercies," but a pure, sweeter country tenor.  In the current "Stone Boy," he plays a taciturn Montana farmer and father unable to deal with the accidental shooting of his older son by his younger son.  It's a modest, supporting role that he took in order to be part of an ensemble that includes his good friend, Wilford Brimley, his wife, Gail (who is terrific as the bedraggled wife of womanizing Frederic Forrest), and Glenn Close.  He thinks his evangelical movie will be "my exit from country themes."
Battle:  Duvall is clearly no prima donna with other actors, but woe to the director who does not give him enough space.  Back in his early acting days, when he appeared in Boston in "Waiting for Godot" with another novice named Dustin Hoffman, he's said to have threatened the life of director David Wheeler.  The Duvall temper exploded on the set of "True Grit" when director Henry Hathaway advised co-actor Glen Campbell to "tense up" when the cameras rolled.  Those were fighting words to Duvall.  "I ultimately think a director is judged by what he gets from the actors," Duvall says.  "The actor's the guy that's gotta be given the room, because it's his face that's going up there.  The two worst things a director can say are 'pick up the pace' and 'give me more energy.'"  Pleased as he is with "Tender Mercies," Duvall fought a constant battle with director Bruce Beresford, who didn't create the loose, relaxed environment Duvall believes actors require.  "He never once said 'What do you think?' to the actors."
Duvall is an avid follower and critic of his colleagues.  He is wildly impressed with the Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, the star of "Mephisto."  After he saw the movie, his wife reports, "it was the only time I ever saw him intimidated by another actor."  He admires Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro and the English actor Frank Finlay, and feels that Sean Penn may be the most vesatile young actor.  "Most actors are just waiting for their turn the talk," he complains.  "They don't know how to listen."  You look into the eyes of some of those British actors and they're just waiting for their cues."
When Dolly Parton hollered out Duvall's name on Oscar night, the crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion let out an appreciative roar.  Even the maverick New York actor, suspicious of Hollywood hype, had to admit that "it was a nice feeling, knowing I was the home-crowd favorite."  For a character actor who approaches each role with the diligence of an ethnologist on a field trip into the soul, it's hard to say what his gold-plated statuette will mean to Duvall's career.  A certain anonymity suits him.  Let other actors hog the spotlight.  He prefers to travel light, unencumbered by a star's persona, in pursuit of that most paradoxical actor's goal -- a perfect imitation of reality.

--David Ansen  Newsweek/April 23, 1984

Thanks to Jamaica for sending this article.