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Journalism of Courage

On a high at 80

When it came time to fill the lead role in Get Low — which embellishes the real-life story of a septuagenarian Tennessee hermit who gave his own “funeral party” in 1938 while still alive....

When it came time to fill the lead role in Get Low — which embellishes the real-life story of a septuagenarian Tennessee hermit who gave his own “funeral party” in 1938 while still alive — the options weren’t plentiful for the people behind the film. The hermit,Felix Bush,is a worn-out man who has exiled himself to a cabin for four decades,haunted by a youthful trespass.“It’s the kind of role where you want to blur the line between the legend and gravitas of the character and the legend and gravitas of the performer,” the film’s director,Aaron Schneider,said. “Our list of actors was short: Our list was Robert Duvall.”

Next January Duvall will celebrate his 80th birthday. He has been a Hollywood actor for 48 years,having moved from stage to screen in 1962 as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is among a handful of A-list actors who have neared or reached 80 while suffering little to no career slowdown. Clint Eastwood is 80. Michael Caine is 77. Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins are both in their early 70s. With Gene Hackman,80,retired,the list pretty much stops there.

Duvall’s longevity raises two intertwined questions. For one,what has he been doing right all these years? For another,is the end of his laws-of-Hollywood-physics-defying run in sight?

“It’s coming. It’s got to be,” Duvall said,addressing the second question. As he described several would-be projects on his “front burner,” he made clear that he’s in no hurry to bow out. There’s a postwar drama written by Billy Bob Thornton that he adores,a movie he wants to make with his longtime pal James Caan,and a reboot of the star crossed Man Who Killed Don Quixote in which Terry Gilliam has cast Duvall as the titular windmill jouster. “These are some terrific roles,” he said. “I want these projects to get off the ground.”

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Downshifting in Tender Mercies he won the best actor Oscar for his restrained portrayal of Mac Sledge,a down-and-out country singer whose inner storms roil beneath but never quite break through his wistful surface. What unites these performances,he said,is that,“Within each character,I like to find the contradictions. Even when I played Stalin,I tried to find a vulnerable point for that guy.”

After taking a role,he does his homework.To inhabit Euliss Dewey,a Pentecostal preacher and heartfelt ham in The Apostle (1997) which he also wrote and directed,he spent years visiting black churches. He marinates in such research but makes no firm decisions about how to play a part until the cameras roll.

“I don’t even think you need to rehearse,” Duvall said. “Take 1 is rehearsal,and you’ve got Take 2,3,4 and 5 if need be.”


He said he can find great satisfaction in a role that takes up only a sliver of screen time: “You can do a lot if it’s well-defined,or you try to expand the part and find three dimensions.” While filming his cameo opposite Viggo Mortenson in The Road he recalled,“I improvised a whole scene that wasn’t in the script,and they left it in.I didn’t ask the director. I didn’t ask permission. I just told Viggo,‘Get ready,I’m going to do something here.”

First published on: 01-08-2010 at 00:30 IST
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