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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Bradshaw

Robert Duvall’s 20 best performances – ranked!

Duvall in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Duvall in Apocalypse Now (1979). Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

20. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

A pretty odd and atypical role for Duvall in which he was perhaps not well cast. He plays a Brit, Dr Watson, sidekick to Nicol Williamson’s legendary detective Sherlock Holmes in this non-canonical fan fiction tale (a genre that critic Gilbert Adair called “shlock Holmes”). Watson is convinced that Holmes is suffering cocaine-induced delusions (due to ingesting his “7% solution”), takes him to see Sigmund Freud – and they wind up solving a case.

19. Sling Blade (1996)

A tiny, unsympathetic and perhaps uninteresting Duvall role in this breakthrough movie for writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton, who plays Karl, a 40-year-old man with learning disabilities who has just been released from psychiatric hospital, having as a child killed his mother and her lover with the “sling blade” of the title. In a key scene, he confronts his glowering, near silent old dad (Duvall) with the abuse that traumatised him. Thornton doesn’t give Duvall much to do, perhaps suspecting he would get horribly upstaged.

18. The Conversation (1974)

This is essentially a cameo for Duvall, and yet his presence here is testimony to how iconic he already was. Coppola’s classic of paranoia has Gene Hackman as the shabby surveillance expert, hired by Duvall’s mysterious, shadowy “Director” to spy on his wife, who appears to be carrying on with another man. Hackman obsessively replays a bugged conversation between the two and feels the Director’s oppressive presence.

Powerful debut … To Kill a Mockingbird.
Powerful debut … To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: pr

17. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

This was 31-year-old Duvall’s screen debut, playing the troubled but misunderstood recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley, who fatefully rescues Jem and Scout, and becomes analogous to the title’s vulnerable mockingbird. There was not much for Duvall to do, but he maximises every second on screen, and the role introduced audiences to the testosterone of a born character player.

16. True Grit (1969)

Going up against John Wayne is a challenge for any actor, but the young Duvall did in the original True Grit, playing “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the notorious bandit chased down by Wayne’s ageing one-eyed gunslinger, Rooster Cogburn. “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned!” shouts Cogburn. “Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?” Duvall’s villain sneers rashly: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man” – precipitating a hair-raising gunfight.

15. The Paper (1994)

Duvall excels at ageing authority figures (often with a hot-tempered youngster under his wing needing to be kindly schooled), and the cantankerous newspaper editor is a role he was born to play. In Ron Howard’s underrated newsroom drama, Duvall is Bernie White, the editor of a New York tabloid called the Sun. Hit with a prostate cancer diagnosis, he hopes that his overworking protege Michael Keaton doesn’t sacrifice his life to work the way he did.

14. A Civil Action (1998)

Robert Duvall got a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his ripe scene-stealer in this courtroom drama, playing Jerry Facher, a shrewd corporate lawyer working for the bad guys – big corporations accused of polluting the town’s drinking water. John Travolta plays the crusading lawyer acting for the families, but Travolta’s performance is no match for Duvall’s wily, folksy, grandfatherly old guy with the instincts of a cobra.

13. The Judge (2014)

More legal-eagle shenanigans for Duvall, playing a cunning but charming old sidewinder of a judge, who is now ailing. When he is accused of murder, he realises that there is only one lawyer who can get him off: his son, a smartmouth, big-city operator, played by Robert Downey Jr, from whom he has long been painfully estranged. They will have to heal their wounds before the trial begins: a grandstanding turn from Duvall.

With Lukas Haas in Rambling Rose.
With Lukas Haas in Rambling Rose. Photograph: Ronald Grant

12. Rambling Rose (1991)

This is classic mid-period Duvall in the kind of solid studio drama that used to be Hollywood’s bread-and-butter. He plays Mr Hillyer, a kindly paterfamilias in Alabama during the Depression; he and his wife (Diane Ladd) take in a young girl out of the kindness of their hearts to be a maid. This is Rose, played by Laura Dern, whose artless sexuality soon causes trouble. Duvall was a little upstaged by the mother-daughter team of Ladd and Dern, but his screen presence is irresistible.

11. Get Low (2009)

Duvall is deep into his crusty oldster phase in this movie: route-one casting, perhaps, but with some laughs and all very well performed. He plays Felix Bush, a mean old reclusive guy based on a real figure from 1930s Tennessee, who one day decides to fake his death just to hear what the townsfolk will say at the funeral: a cynical undertaker played by Bill Murray falls in with the plan. It squares up like a broad black comedy, but Bush turns out to be a complex human individual.

10. Colors (1988)

The LAPD has repeatedly been Duvall’s habitat (see True Confessions), and in this Dennis Hopper-directed drama about the tough streets of South Central, he’s a straight-arrow cop taking on the gangs. But he has to contend with his brash and deeply annoying young partner (Sean Penn), who behaves like a hoodlum. In some ways, he’s a priestly figure , out to save Penn’s cop soul.

Playing pompous … M*A*S*H.
Playing pompous … M*A*S*H. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

9. M*A*S*H (1970)

In the TV show, the uptight commanding officer Frank Burns was played for laughs as a prissy prig by Larry Linville, but it wasn’t quite the same story in the original movie from Robert Altman. Duvall plays him as a charmless, pompous, incompetent rule-fetishist, taunted by Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) about his illicit relationship with “Hot Lips” Hoolihan. A dark, brooding figure, Burns goes on the attack and gets taken away in a straitjacket.

8. True Confessions (1981)

Duvall and Robert De Niro get the best out of each other in Ulu Grosbard’s intelligent movie, co-written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and based on Dunne’s novel inspired by the Black Dahlia case. Duvall plays a tough LAPD detective in the 40s, haunted by a corrupt past that he has put behind him. His younger brother is De Niro’s idealistic young catholic priest, who receives donations from a somewhat shady businessman. A gruesome murder brings the two into a mutually anguished confrontation.

7. The Great Santini (1979)

Duvall let the darkness out with this great role as US Marine Corps officer, “Bull” Meacham, a military aviator who is admired on base, but feared and even hated by his family at home for his drinking and temper. He is in the habit of playing one-on-one basketball games with his teenage son Ben and cannot accept it when Ben finally beats him, bullying and humiliating him in an unwatchable scene.

THX 1138.
THX 1138. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

6. THX 1138 (1971)

George Lucas’s dystopian and pessimistic pre-Star Wars sci-fi is set in a Huxleyesque futureworld of white-clad individuals with numbers instead of names, where a police state enforces law and order with android cops and emotion-suppressing drugs. (The weird ambience was mocked by Woody Allen in Sleeper.) Duvall plays a factory technician called THX 1138, imprisoned for having sex with his roommate, who escapes. It’s a vehemently dramatic, romantic and sexual role for Duvall, perhaps the nearest he ever came to an action lead.

5. Network (1976)

In this satirical classic from screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky, Duvall plays cynical, blowhard TV executive Frank Hackett, who is electrified by the realisation that his deeply depressed newsreader Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has become a coast-to-coast hit by threatening to kill himself live on air. Hackett doesn’t care about his employee’s mental health, just about ratings.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Before there were memes, Duvall became one with his brief but sensational performance as Lt Col Kilgore, the surf-crazed Wagner enthusiast who, with his “Air Mobile” division of helicopters, leads an attack on a Vietnamese village in broad daylight, speakers blaring The Ride of the Valkyries. In theory, it is to airlift Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his men, but all too clearly, he just wants an excuse for a whooping and hollering cavalry attack. Later he squats on his haunches to address the men: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” – adding with a mysterious hint of regret – “Some day this war’s gonna end.”

With Tess Harper in Tender Mercies.
With Tess Harper in Tender Mercies. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

3. Tender Mercies (1983)

Duvall got his best actor Oscar for Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies, in which he plays Mac Sledge, a country singer who has lost his wife, daughter and career to drink. Waking up broke and hungover in a Texas motel, he persuades the manager (Tess Harper) to let him stay and winds up marrying her. It’s a lovely, gentle performance from Duvall, who has a great singing voice and performs two songs of his own composition: Fool’s Waltz and I’ve Decided To Leave Here Forever.

2. The Godfather (1971) and The Godfather Part II (1974)

Duvall’s Tom Hagen in The Godfather is one of his subtlest and most misunderstood performances. A mild, self-effacing consigliere for the Corleone crime family, it is he who is responsible for the most macabre and legendary act of violence in the Godfather canon. When Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone tasks him with flying to Los Angeles to pressure a certain movie producer into casting Vito’s godson, the Sinatra-esque singer Johnny Fontane, Tom masterminds with deadpan calm placing a horse’s head in the man’s bed.

The Apostle.
The Apostle. Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

1. The Apostle (1997)

This was Duvall’s own passion project, as writer, director, producer (in the sense of putting up his own money) and star. But this is not a mere vanity piece: it is a genuinely great and scandalously neglected classic. Duvall plays the charismatic Christian preacher EF Dewey, who has lost his wife and children because of his drinking. When he fatally hits his estranged wife’s new boyfriend with a baseball bat while drunk, he goes on the run, winding up in Louisiana where he sets up a new church and becomes a much-loved figure in the town – until the police catch up with him. It is a lovely, almost Hardyesque story, and Duvall is superb.

• This article was amended on 8 December 2022. Robert Duvall was 31 when he starred in To Kill a Mockingbird, not 21 as an earlier version said.

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