Hired to play a country singer in Tender Mercies (1983), Robert Duvall insisted on doing his own singing; otherwise, he asked, "What's the point?"
Throughout his long career, Duvall — honored with the Peter J. Owens Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 30 — has striven to deliver hard, unvarnished performances. Best among them are his consigliere in the Godfather films, his angry dad in The Great Santini, his preacher in The Apostle (which he directed), and his old cowboy in Lonesome Dove. Jeff Bridges offered his own variant of Tender Mercies' lost country bard in his recent Crazy Heart (which Duvall helped produce), but it was Duvall who stole the picture in his few scenes as Bridges' friend. Duvall in these films stands for an idealized older America, who is also your hard-nosed dad calling you on the carpet.
When called upon himself, of course, Duvall delivers the goods in different, showier roles, as in his debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, his corporate hatchet man in Network, or the mad colonel in Apocalypse Now (smelling napalm, in the morning). On television, he has played Eisenhower, Stalin, Robert E. Lee (a distant relative), and Adolf Eichmann. And who has seen Assassination Tango, the other movie Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in? He played a hitman who takes up dancing. This project was very dear to Duvall, something he really wanted to do, and he does it well; that stubborn desire to do something correctly — no matter how outlandish it may seem — animates all of his best work.
In his new film, Get Low, screening at the tribute evening, Duvall plays an elderly recluse who decides to stage his own funeral while still alive. Receiving a lifetime achievement award while still alive is the rough real-life equivalent, but no foxy old codger is more deserving than Robert Duvall. After all, he is your dad. Obey him.
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