Their Best Role: Robert Duvall

You will believe a cultivated, refined man is a brutish lout, a backwoods recluse prone to bursts of anger and unprovoked, violent assaults. Robert Duvall gives a finely-modulated performance as Felix Bush in Aaron Schneider's Get Low, which opens on Friday in limited engagements, and it's among his finest roles. And considering we're talking about an actor who's been nominated for six Academy Awards (winning once, for Tender Mercies) and has left an indelible footprint upon cinema for the past 40 years, what's most impressive is that he can still find ways to surprise, delight, and move audiences who may think they've seen every trick in his pocket.

With Duvall, though, it's never been tricks or tics. The old joke in Hollywood is that all you need is sincerity; once you can fake that, you've got it made. Duvall brings an in-born sense of integrity, rather than forced sincerity, to every character he plays. It may sound like a game of semantics, but Duvall manages to be exude honesty even when he's lying to your face. He believes what he's saying, even if he's fooling himself.

Duvall's career began in the 60s, and he brought Harper Lee's Boo Radley to haunted life in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1963. He stayed busy throughout that decade, but as a child of the 70s, I first got to know him through his portrayals of three powerful, strikingly diverse characters: Mob attorney Tom Hagen in The Godfather, television executive Frank Hackett in Network, and 'morning smell of napalm' loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. Yet none of those is his greatest role.

Robert Duvall in 'The Great Santini'For that, we turn to 1979's The Great Santini, written for the screen and directed by Lewis John Carlino. Duvall plays Lt. Col. 'Bull' Meechum, an obstreperous U.S. Marine pilot who's a nuisance to his superiors and the bane of his family's existence. Oh, his wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) and children love him, and they know that he loves them too, at some deep personal level that he doesn't know how to express. Yet he causes more pain than pleasure, relentlessly pushing everyone as hard as he pushes himself.

Bull loves to compete and hates to lose. Clearly, he has anger management and control issues, but, like any loyal military lifer, he's not in control of where he lives and what he does. So he takes out his personal frustration upon his men and family. Bull can be so obnoxious that it's sickening to watch, as in a scene where he's playing basketball in the backyard against his oldest son, Ben (Michael O'Keefe). Bull fouls the kid outrageously, but Ben has learned that the one thing that drives his dad crazy is not reacting to him. Fuming quietly, Ben finally gains the advantage on his old man, and begins taunting him as he's about to win the game. Bull shoves him against a brick wall, but Ben still sinks the winning basket. The rest of the family, including the long-suffering Lillian, have wearied of Bull's nasty jabs, and cheer the victory.

That prompts Bull to change the rules, deciding that the game must be won by two baskets, not one. With a sneer, he challenges Ben to continue the game, chasing off the rest of the family in brutal fashion when they protest. When Ben refuses to engage, Bull begins bouncing the basketball off Ben's forehead. "Mama's boy!" (Bounce.) "You gonna cry?" (Bounce.) "Go ahead and cry." (Bounce.)

It goes on and on. When I first watched this play out during its initial theatrical run, the scene stirred up fresh memories of a relative who had played basketball with me. Older, bigger, and stronger than me, he delighted in trash-talking and taunting. I always got furiously mad, and I never beat him. So I cheered for Ben, even as I simmered about Bull's reprehensible actions.

Bull, however, is not a villain. Duvall makes him fully human and understandable, while barely giving a hint of any quality that would actually make him likable, at least in the top layers of his personality. Buried beneath that, there's a glimmer of ... something, something that would make Lillian love him and serve him well as an officer. He's a nasty person, not someone I'd want to spend any time with, but he falls short of being a monster.

That's the genius of Duvall. He creates characters that spill over from real life to the big screen. He can play a mean, ambitious bastard with oily charm, as in Network. Or a tough, cynical cop determined to discover the truth, no matter who gets hurt, as in the criminally underseen True Confessions. And he's able to manifest gruff charm beneath 40 years of a lonely, isolated, tortured existence, as in Get Low (which is a must see).

And there's a flock of excellent performances I haven't even mentioned (The Apostle, Open Range, MASH, etc.). For my money, though, it is The Great Santini that provided Robert Duvall with his greatest role.

What do you think? What's your favorite Duvall moment?