From Godfathers to Apostles: a profile of Robert Duvall
by Tom Cunha
Legendary actor Robert Duvall takes his third stab at directing -- after a
1975 documentary "We're Not the Jet Set" and 1983's "Angelo My Love" --
with "The Apostle," a small film about a Pentecostal preacher who, after
assaulting his estranged wife's boyfriend, flees to a small Louisiana town
and forms his own congregation with the help of a retired preacher. Duvall
(who also scripted and stars) creates a balanced portrait of a religious
man who, while serving as a beacon of inspiration to his followers, is
nonetheless haunted by his own demons. The depiction steers clear of the
fanaticism that Hollywood often brings to such characters, instead painting
him with respect and humanity.
"He has weaknesses. Pros and cons. He's not a fanatic," says Duvall, "I
just think it's part of his background, that's his way." This labor of love
effort is a crowning achievement for the veteran actor of such American
classics as "M*A*S*H," "The Godfathers I & II," "Network," "Apocalypse Now"
and "Tender Mercies." Himself a religious man, Duvall says of the
experience, "I think the movie will stay with me more than maybe any other
movie I've done."
Duvall was inspired to write the modest $5 million project thirteen years
ago. "I was passing through Arkansas years ago, I went to one of these
little churches. It was a woman preacher and another guy. I had never seen
anything like that. Right away I said, 'boy someday I'd like to play one of
these characters.'" He adds that the practice of preaching is "a true
American artform. It's kind of theatrical in a good way."
It was, however, a long haul getting this story to the big screen. "Nobody
really wanted to talk about it or get behind it. Agencies don't want to get
behind it because they don't make any money. So, therefore, you're really
on your own."
After countless pitches to studios and twelve years of basically hearing
"thanks but no thanks," Duvall realized that the only way his dream project
was going to happen was by coughing up the funding himself. "I put it on
the back burner hoping it wouldn't happen because I was afraid of it. But
then I knew I had to do it because it was something I was committed to.
Each year I would say 'it's now or never.' And then last spring it was
really now or never and my CPA said I think you have enough money to back
this. My CPA is such a cautious guy and he greenlit the movie. Not my
agency, not any studio, he did."
Any trepidation Duvall had about taking on the project soon dissolved once
production started. "Once we started, all those fears kind of melted away.
We had seven weeks. I wanted twelve to do it but we had seven weeks. We
finished early. Three of those weeks were five day work weeks. We finished
everyday around five or six. I never felt tired. It was a very harmonious
experience. We edited at my farm in Virginia."
The risky venture seems to have paid off. He has thus far won Best Actor
honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National
Society of Film Critics, and his work, as well as the film itself, is being
universally hailed, some of whom have called this his finest performance to
date. Quite a compliment considering his unforgettable work in "The
Godfather I & II," "The Great Santini" and "Tender Mercies," for which he
won an Oscar.
Speaking of Oscars, nomination announcements are right around the corner
and speculation is strong that Duvall may be a contender for the gold this
year. "It would be nice," admits Duvall, but he remains reticent
nonetheless and cites his Emmy nomination for the 1989 television
miniseries "Lonesome Dove" as an example of his expectations being let
down. "If I ever got an award, it should have been for that. So you never
can tell. I've seen people win awards for terrific work. I've seen them win
awards and you say, how did they win that?"
While Duvall will remain first and foremost an actor, or "hired hand" as he
calls it, he definitely wants to direct more in the future, even if it
takes another 12 years to kick start his next project. "I don't think it
will take as long this time. Even if I have to put up my own money again."
Among the directors whose work Duvall admires are Ulu Grosbard (who
directed him in "True Confessions"), British helmer Kenneth Loach
("Ladybird, Ladybird"), Nikita Mikhalkov ("Close to Eden") Emir Kusturica
("Underground") and Lasse Halstrom (who directed him in the Julia Roberts
vehicle "Something to Talk About") who Duvall particularly hails, "You name
me one director in the history of Hollywood that ever did a film with the
sensitivity and the beauty of "My Life as a Dog." Beautiful film. I never
saw a film out of this country like that. He really goes for behavior."
Duvall is also praiseworthy of vets Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman,
the latter of whom directed him in PolyGram's current release "The
Gingerbread Man." "He's great to work with. I hadn't worked with him in
years." So how was it different working with Altman this time around as
compared to their collaboration on "M*A*S*H" back in 1970? "Not a lot
different. We're all getting older and Bob's gotten heavier and he has weak
knees and he walks slower, but it's still the same nice aura on the set.
He's an interesting guy. It's fun working with Altman."
While Coppola is one director Duvall holds in high regard, he nonetheless
opted not to return for the third installment of "The Godfather" in 1990.
"The only reason, I bet my bottom dollar, that they were doing that movie
was for money. Why wait fifteen years? I said look, if you're going to pay
Pacino twice what you pay me that's OK, but don't offer me three times less
than what you're going to pay him. So we said forget it."
Duvall will also be seen later this year in "Deep Impact" about a comet
that's headed towards the earth, and "A Civil Action," which pairs him with
his "Phenomenon" costar John Travolta. In the meantime, directing-wise, he
has a couple of coals in the fire which he is optimistic about, "I always
felt like a late bloomer. My career is better now than ever."