The stealthy anarchist, Duvall owns the Night

Movies Features By Ian Caddell
Publish Date: October 11, 2007

Los Angeles?Robert Duvall is a perpetually late bloomer. He was almost 30 before he was hired for small parts in television shows and was cast in his first high-profile film role?as the original Maj. Frank Burns in the feature film M*A*S*H-a few months before his 40th birthday. Two years later, he won the first of six Oscar nominations for playing the family retainer, Tom Hagen, in The Godfather. He won his first Oscar, for Tender Mercies, at 53, and he won acclaim as director of The Apostle at 67. This year, the 76-year-old Duvall won his first best-actor Emmy, for his work in the Alberta-shot mini¡©series Broken Trail.

He is not slowing down, averaging almost two movies a year since he turned 70 in 2001. In his latest film, We Own the Night, opening Friday (October 12), he plays a police chief proud of Joseph, the son who has become a police captain (Mark Wahlberg), but despairing of Bobby, the son who is outside the law (Joaquin Phoenix). He wants Bobby, who runs a club frequented by the Russian mob, to help the police trap a killer. However, Bobby turns him down, telling his father and his brother that he isn't interested in cooperating with a family that he no longer feels a part of.

Duvall says that although the film may appear to be a police drama, he took it on because he saw it as being about dysfunctional families. And though he has no children of his own, he says he has played enough fathers to understand the complexities of the relationships.

"I liked it because it was just as much of a relationship movie as a police film," Duvall explained. "I have always believed that the beginning and ending of everything in life is family. At the same time, family is so complex. I have never met one that wasn't complex. In this family, the father has been left on his own to raise the family. My own father was quite distant and my mother ran the show. In The Great Santini, it says that when the military man comes home the mantle of authority is passed back to him from the mother, and then when he goes away again it is passed back to the mother. But in my family, my mother always ran it. There was no passing of anything."

Duvall came up through the studio system. Actors were taught that if they argued with the studios or directors, it was likely they wouldn't work again. He says things have changed and that he has mixed feelings, as an actor and director, about the changing attitude toward authority. But he says that whatever modern actors are doing, it is working for them and they're giving better performances.

"Actors rebel more today than they did when I was coming up," he says. "In the old days, the directors were pretty well in charge, but today the directors try to listen to what the actors are saying and try to work with them. I think that is why, overall, you see better performances now than you used to, especially from the young actors. They claim more. They stake out things. A lot of them are pretty obnoxious, but at least they go and try to get what they need. When I was younger, they edited most of my stuff out and no one stood up for me. These young actors even go into the editing room now, and, for better or worse, they try to take over."

Duvall has taken control of his own career in recent years by either going behind the camera or taking on a producing credit. He says that Broken Trail, which he executive-produced and which won 16 Emmy nominations, would not have been as good as it was if he hadn't questioned the authority of the network, AMC.

"I like doing television, but I am a little leery of these networks," Duvall said. "I took on an executive-producing credit for Broken Trail, which was helpful because it was a nightmare. We [Duvall and writer Alan Geoffrion] had 16 days to turn around the edit [of the script] that was handed to us from AMC. We got it back to the original, which was a human-driven story. They didn't want Alan up there [in Alberta], but I was the producer and I told them, 'I want him here.' They went behind my back a lot. I told Alan, 'We are going to practise anarchy on a daily basis, but quietly.' But we had to save it because they were ruining it. We would rewrite every day. There were two or three different camps, but it was still fun. I have a great memory of it. It was one of my favourite projects, despite the fact it was so difficult."