Duvall spars with film's director

JAY STONE, CanWest News Service
Published: Sunday, May 27, 2007

Robert Duvall and James Gray were having lunch yesterday and arguing about movies. Gray is the director of We Own The Night, which is in competition at the Cannes film festival, and Duvall is one of the stars, along with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg.

The opening scene of the movie, which is about the police fighting the Russian Mafia during the 1980s, shows archival photographs of the New York City police department. Gray said he was inspired by Bonnie and Clyde, which opened with a collage of old Walker Evans photographs. But he couldn't imitate it too much, because that would make it too much like Bonnie and Clyde.

"Hopefully not," Duvall said.

"I like Bonnie and Clyde," Gray said. "You don't like Bonnie and Clyde? You're wrong."

"You're wrong," Duvall said.

"The acting was so overstated," he added."Come on. The acting sucked, Jimmy. You know that."

Duvall then accused Gray of being a big fan of Gone With The Wind. "Gone With The Wind sucks," Gray said.

We were going a long way from We Own The Night, but the debate -- about how acting works, and what holds up in movies -- was a perfect coda to the film festival, which is, at its best, all about such issues.

There are worse ways to end two weeks of Cannes than listen to Robert Duvall talk about acting: the minimalist kind, the expressive kind, even the method kind.

"There's only truth and untruth, am I right?" Duvall said.

"I mean, you can be big if you have a big personality. I defended Klaus Maria Brandauer when the Italian press said he was over the top. I didn't think so. Mephisto was a great picture.

"Did you see that performance?"

That got the men talking about the John Ford classic The Searchers. Duvall said he has never watched the whole movie, because "some of the acting was so phony I turned it off."

Gray countered that "The Searchers has the vision thing. I can't really describe it any other way." Duvall pointed out that the movie is set in Texas but shot in Utah's Monument Valley. "It has an ethnographic inaccuracy, there's no question, but if you can get past that, I love John Wayne, I think he can be great."

"He's very under-rated," Duvall agreed. "He learned how to do it by doing this. He didn't have Lee Strasberg to tell him."

Duvall said he wasn't sure of the value of the famous acting coach and his Actors' Studio method.

"Talent is talent," he said. "Brando was in his studio, Pacino, but they didn't have to be there. ... I think he led people down strange paths. I knew a guy who went there, he was talented, he got so inhibited there he couldn't function."

"Craft gives you tools," Gray said.

"Somebody said Lee Strasberg, you go on stage with a big bag of yesterdays," Duvall said.

"He's produced some great actors," Gray said.

"Yeah, but did he produce them?" Duval said.

He was generous about the talent of young Canadians: "The guy you got from eastern Canada, a terrific actor that kid (Ryan Gosling.) On the west coast you got that guy, a wonderful kid who was in Star Wars (Hayden Christensen, who's actually from Toronto). And Barry Pepper can be okay too."

However, he wasn't too enthusiastic about Pepper's 2006 Cannes movies, The Three Burials of Melqiades Estrada. Duvall said that "all the Texas guys were bad guys and all the Mexicans were good guys."

Gray admitted that he did things to throw Duvall off balance to get interesting reactions.

"Joaquin calls him The Jedi Master, because you can't get him out of the scene," Gray said.

"One take I remember, it was a scene where he was surrounded by all these actors in a police station, and I said to all these other actors, 'I want you to laugh at him. Every single thing he says, I want you to treat as absolutely ridiculous.'

"So I'm watching it, and you're doing the scene, and they're all doing (he sticks out his tongue) - they're not on camera - and Bobby's going 'What's the matter, you all drunk?' And they're going nuts. And a lot of it wound up in the movie.

Duvall told Gray he didn't have to go to such lengths: "Tell me to get angry," he said. "I can do that too."

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© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007

---- The Gazette (Montreal), May 27, 2007