A criminally underrated crime drama, True Confessions saw Duvall win the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award for his turn as bitter homicide detective Tom Spellacy, who takes on the Los Angeles upper class while solving the Black Dahlia murder. Robert De Niro co-starred as his Catholic priest brother, making a lethal one-two punch in an understated drama about crime, religion and family ties.
BOSS SPEARMAN (OPEN RANGE, 2003)
Duvall has played the part of the grizzled cowboy many times, with his turn in mini-series Lonesome Dove a highlight. Yet in the cinematic realm, it is hard to look past his performance as Boss Spearman in Open Range.
Directed by and co-starring Kevin Costner, the film looks at two ranchers who confront trouble when transporting their cattle across high plains.
Duvall evokes the western spirit with true grit and quiet reserve, making his Boss Spearman a man to be respected and reckoned with.
JEROME FACHER (A CIVIL ACTION, 1998)
A Civil Action was supposed to be an award winning vehicle for its star John Travolta, yet garnering the hardware and plaudits was the ever crafty Duvall as sly, malicious defence attorney Jerome Facher.
Playing the role in that understated, humorous fashion that he does oh so well, Duvall steals scenes and draws the ire of viewers as the attorney of a large corporation sued for bringing cancer to a lower class community.
A scene where Duvall offers to settle the case by passing a dollar bill to Travolta’s clearly beaten lawyer is a highlight in the careers of both actors.
FRANK HACKETT (NETWORK, 1976)
Network is an American classic which has received praise for its many incredible performances, yet not spoken of enough is Duvall’s ferocious turn as network executive Frank Hackett.
Encompassing the ruthless, unethical nature which the television series operates on, Duvall put together one of his most fearsome creations in Hackett, a corporate bully in a suit able to destroy you with either a swift stroke of the pen or a screaming tantrum in your face.
FELIX BUSH (GET LOW, 2010)
At the ripe ol’ age of 78, Duvall still managed to deliver a phenomenal turn as redemption seeking hermit Felix Bush in Get Low.
By this point Duvall had played support in several films, most notably Crazy Heart and The Road. Yet like sinking into an old, favourite chair, the veteran thesp is at ease leading the charge with the same authority seen in his prime years, only now backed with the wisdom of experience.
A heartfelt, tearful speech at the conclusion of Get Low is delivered with soulful emotion. Snappy one liners are delivered with seasoned timing. Moments of anger are fuelled with regret and bitterness. Pure acting at its best.
LT. COL. ‘BULL’ MEECHUM (THE GREAT SANTINI, 1979)
Robert Duvall’s performance as Lt. Col. “The Great Santini” Bull Meechum was so good, that it transformed what was to be a straight to TV production into one of the cinematic highlights of 1979.
That The Great Santini was released in the same year as Apocalypse Now is ironic, for had that films Lt. Kilgore had a wife and kids waiting at home, this would be the result with father at war with his family, who struggle to meet the strict standards placed upon them.
Duvall delivers what could be his most complete performance, with his patented rage, swagger, cheeky comedy style and crushing fragility combining to make movie magic, as only “The Great Santini” could deliver.
TOM HAGEN (THE GODFATHER, 1972 & THE GODFATHER PART II, 1974)
The Godfather movies made stars of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, and Diane Keaton. Also to benefit from this great American saga was Robert Duvall, who played Tom Hagen, adopted son and mob lawyer to the Corleone family.
Due to his Irish ancestry, Hagen was a character that was in the mix yet never fully accepted within the world of Italian mobsters, his relationship with Michael (Al Pacino) especially icy in The Godfather Part II.
It was that internal heart, coupled with Hagen’s own shrewd nature that Duvall tapped into, making what could have been a forgettable character a vital piece to the success of both films. For proof of Duvall’s importance to the series, watch The Godfather Part III.
MAC SLEDGE (TENDER MERCIES, 1983)
After playing a string of volatile characters, Duvall reigned in the rage and won an Oscar for his sensitive turn as country singer Mac Sledge in the aptly named Tender Mercies.
Essentially playing a man “reborn” into a new life, Duvall stirs the soul as he navigates his character through the struggles of sobriety, the pain of regret, and the love of a new family.
It is perhaps Duvall at his most subtle, and true to the film’s title, his most tender. Plus, he can carry a tune as well.
EULIUS ‘SONNY’ DEWEY – THE APOSTLE E.F.
(THE APOSTLE, 1997)
“What I really want to do is direct.” Those dreaded words from the mouths of actors usually equate to some bad films. But in the case of Robert Duvall’s directorial debut The Apostle, the opposite occurs.
It wasn’t easy. Duvall wrote the script way back in the 70s, and after years of narrow minded studios passing on The Apostle, Duvall took to financing, starring and directing it himself.
The end result is an artistic triumph for Duvall, not only as a filmmaker but also as an actor, playing the part of a preacher on the run from the law with an infectious passion that shines bright and strong.
LIUTENANT COLONEL BILL KILLGORE (APOCALYPSE NOW,1979)
That Duvall’s greatest and indeed most iconic performance came in the form of a supporting role is fitting, since no matter the size of the role Duval always turns it into gold.
Such is the case of his turn as Lt. Col. Killgore in Francis Ford Coppolla’s masterful Apocalypse Now. Based on the novel “Hearts of Darkness”, the film starred Martin Sheen as a covert soldier sent into Vietnam to assassinate a renegade colonel (Marlon Brando).
During his journey upstream to find the colonel, Sheen’s assassin comes across Duvall’s Killgore: loud, cocky, patriotic, and more than a little war crazy.
From the go, Duvall owns the scene with a performance that hits on multiple wave lengths: frightening, funny, awe inspiring, sympathetic and conflicting, with his “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” spiel ending on a bitter note, an inward reflection, and a look that can only be described as “Duvall-esque”.
Brando had the top billing, Sheen had the screen time, but Apocalypse Now was Duvall’s film.