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It might well be true that sports analogies are the last refuge of the unimaginative, but surely that shouldn't preclude employing them altogether. And so …

What makes for greatness, in art, in athletics, in life? Is it individual effort? Is it the heavyweight who wins back the crown after years away from the ring, or the solitary painter pursuing visions that no one else sees, or the reviled, world-shaking philosopher writing alone, for days and nights on end, in a freezing garret, assailed by migraines, near-blindness, nausea? Or is it the team player, the ensemble member, who elevates the efforts of those around him to another, finer level through some ineffable quality of his own?

Case in point: Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years in the 1950s and 1960s, including eight NBA championships in a row. Some fans and sportswriters argue that those stats clearly make Russell the greatest team athlete in history. Then again, Ernie Banks played baseball for the Chicago Cubs for 19 years, redefined the shortstop position, won the hearts of fans and fellow players, and never won so much as a pennant, much less a World Series. Was Russell a greater team player than Banks, just because of all those championship rings?

Well, yeah. He was.

Now, let's apply that kooky algebra to the performing arts. Judging by his career's longevity, and the quality of his own and his cast mates' performances, and the awards and unalloyed praise won by productions he's appeared in, Robert Duvall is, arguably, one of a small handful of the greatest actors (not superstars, but working film actors) in the history of the medium.

A look at the films he's appeared in (sometimes uncredited) reads like the syllabus for a course on great cinema, across myriad genres: To Kill a Mockingbird, Bullit, True Grit, The Godfather (I and II), The Conversation, Network, Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies, The Apostle, the almost absurdly entertaining Lonesome Dove miniseries, and on and on. That Duvall wasn't a "star" in many of those movies, but still created indelible characterizations in small but integral roles, argues even more powerfully for the man's artistry.

But it's exactly when we try and say what it is about Duvall as an actor, when we try and pinpoint the quality that makes him such a solid, immovable, and yet somehow mercurial presence in so many roles, that we come away empty handed, as if we've confidently grasped at a pillar of smoke, only to see it move, quickly and surely, just out of our reach.

The perfect place to start grasping, of course, is by recalling the man's Boo Radley in Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird (still the finest and most improbably faithful film adaptation of a great American novel). Smarter and more insightful critics than this one have, of course, already written volumes about Boo's appearance in the film's penultimate scene, and about Scout's reaction to the pale, gentle, harrowing presence cowering behind the bedroom door. The scene is a flawless example of that rarest of cinematic moments, an intensely moving first meeting of two fully realized characters, made all the more astonishing by Duvall's mute eloquence, and by the fact that, despite Boo's centrality to the tone and movement of the tale, this scene is the first in which he (bodily) appears. In his film debut, without saying a word, Duvall wordlessly personifies one of literature's and cinema's great archetypes: the unseen monster who, when finally met, turns out to be a tender, tormented, and empathetic soul.

On the far end of the emotional and psychological spectrum, we have Duvall's thoroughly nasty, cunning, and cynical TV exec Frank Hackett in Network. He's not onscreen for much of the movie, but again, he inhabits the role with such a feral authenticity that when he shows up, the intensity in this already intense film is ratcheted up to an exhilarating level. Hackett's amorality is so exuberant that we revel in it, even while reviling the character.

Surely part of Duvall's appeal, whether playing hero or villain, is his physicality. With his lopsided grin (which, like DeNiro's, telegraphs either pleasure or impending peril, depending on what the eyes above the grin are doing), his belly-forward strut, his bowed legs, his craggy face, he comes off like the weird uncle that the rest of the family never talks about. A rogue. That he looks most at home when atop a horse cements this loner status. He seems a man on good terms with solitude.

But another part of the man's charm is that he works. One gets the sense that he considers himself a craftsman, a freelancer, and when work is in the offing, he'll take it, and do the job right. Like Gene Hackman, or Michael Caine, Duvall has been in more than a few clunkers, but even in his worst flicks (Days of Thunder, Gone in Sixty Seconds), in even his lamest roles, he adds a dimension to his characters that make him stand out in the proceedings like a wart on a bald head. In Deep Impact, the best of the several killer-asteroid movies released a few years back, he played an old astronaut who has to contend with the condescension of a new breed of young hotshots. In the somewhat contrived, almost cartoonish role of Captain Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner, he managed a fine balance of old-school dignity and smoldering, competitive flyboy fire. Along with Ed Harris's John Glenn in The Right Stuff, it might just be the most believable portrait of an astronaut we're ever likely to see. 

And then there are the roles that have assured him a place in Hollywood lore, the roles that other actors point to and say, "Damn, I wish I'd done that." Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Sonny Dewey in The Apostle. In those roles, and in pretty much any role he inhabits, Duvall shows, in every scene, that he possesses the same qualities that made Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Brando, and other male American actors pop culture icons: aloofness, mystery, a familiarity with violence, and a hint that, somewhere within him, he carries a wound that won't heal. 

Duvall is masculine in a traditional and complex way that few of his peers are. He rides horses, and dances the tango. He is as convincing playing a country western singer as he is playing Josef Stalin or a "kraut mick" mob consigliere. He seems like the sort of guy who spars a few rounds at the gym, knows his wines, can fix a carburetor, and ties his own flies. 

He probably knows some great jokes, and tells them well.

At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, after Boo Radley has killed the drunken sociopath Bob Ewell while defending Atticus Finch's children, a weary, somewhat discombobulated Atticus tells the sheriff that there must be an inquiry into the incident. But the sheriff refuses, arguing that "taking the one man who's done you and this town a great service an' draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight" would be a sin.

Robert Duvall, forever the face of Boo Radley, still occasionally stands in the limelight, working small cinematic miracles with his voice, and his stance, and the intellect behind his eyes. And it's easy to imagine that, when the limelight fades, or veers away to find some other, newer star, Duvall will happily walk away, alone as always, grinning his lopsided, unreadable rogue's grin.

--by Ben Cosgrove

About the Author:

Ben Cosgroveis the editor of two anthologies: Covering the Bases (about baseball) and Gluttony (about gluttony), both published by Chronicle Books. He was Managing Editor for the webzine FEED and, in 1996, for Hotwired's disorderly and nonsectarian political site, Netizen. His articles and book reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Salon.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Weekly, and so on. He lives in New York.

 



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