The Good, the Bad & the Badass: Robert Duvall

Last week, we took a look at the career of master director David Fincher. Considering his reputation for only working with the very best actors, it’s somewhat surprising he hasn’t yet found a part for this week’s badass…

Robert Duvall


Robert Duvall

There aren't enough actors out there like Robert Duvall. Never a full-blown movie star in the massive paycheck kind of way, Duvall's always been one of the great character actors. He's a guy that – no matter what the size of the part is – can always be relied on to bring his A-game and make the part memorable. Even in disposable films, Duvall's talent has shined through, and despite being well into his eighties, his talents have only gotten stronger over the years. Some of his best performances, including the underrated GET LOW, and this week's THE JUDGE have come from him at a time when most other performers would be slowing down. Instead, Duvall has embraced his own mortality, giving absolutely fearless performances, typified by a scene in THE JUDGE where his character is shown having a seizure while naked in a bathtub and losing control of his bowel functions. I don't know of any of his contemporaries who'd have the guts to act a scene like that – especially one that's shot in such a matter-of-fact, graphic way.

Robert Duvall Nicole Kidman Days of Thunder

But then again, Duvall's always been a breed apart. Having already been in his thirties by the time he landed his first memorable part (Boo Radley in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) we never really saw Duvall as a young man, and maybe that's what kept him in the character category of actors for most of his career. Yet, at the same time his longevity cannot be denied, as there has never been a time in the last fifty-or-so years that he wasn't considered among the best in the business. He's had parts in so many classics including THE GODFATHER and it's first sequel, MASH, NETWORK, etc. He's a guy we've maybe taken for granted, with him (astonishingly) only every having won Oscar for TENDER MERICES, way back in 1983 (although he's been nominated six times). Narrowing down his filmography to the choices below was tough, but here it goes…

His Best Performance


Robert Duvall The Godfather

For best performance, I'd have to give the edge to his portrayal of Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER & THE GODFATHER PART II. While he's certainly got the least showy part, the stability and intellect he brings to Hagen is one of the things that grounds the saga. There are so many big personalities in Francis Ford Coppola's world that Duvall, by playing it low-key, can't help but distinguish himself just on the merits that he seems so natural. One especially great piece of acting is when Hagen is kidnapped by Sollozzo's men and told that his adopted father, The Don, is dead, and you see him ever so slightly lose his composure, with his eyes welling up with tears, but holding back his emotions the best he can. It's a shame he didn’t show up in THE GODFATHER PART III, although considering how it turned out, maybe that's for the best.

His Most Overrated Film


Robert Duvall THX 1138

I know it's sacrilege to say this but THX 1138 is not a really good movie. Yes, it's an important one as it's failure made George Lucas opt for the crowd-pleasing aesthetic that gave us AMERICAN GRAFFITI and STAR WARS, but the movie itself is an indulgent mess. The visuals in the original version are nice, and Duvall looks super cool with a shaved head (it's amazing how young he looks in this), but it's a tough movie to sit through, even with it clocking in at a mere 88 minutes. The “special edition” is even worse, with Lucas having filled it with garish CGI that totally undermines his own aesthetic from the era.

His Most Underrated Film


Robert Duvall Tender Mercies

There are a whole bunch of underrated Duvall movies, including THE GREAT SANTINI, OPEN RANGE, COLORS and more, but the one I have to single out is Bruce Beresford's TENDER MERCIES. While yes, he did win an Oscar for it, the film itself is rarely discussed these days, which is a shame as it's really a kind of quiet classic. In it, he plays a former hell-raising country singer turned alcoholic, who falls for a young widow, and turns his life around by opting for a quiet life of simple pleasures. It's a stunning performance and Duvall even sings a couple of songs (quite well too!). It's a wonderful film, which (I believe) is available on Netflix and well worth a watch.

His Most Memorable Scene

This one is a no-brainer. Clearly, the “I love the smell of Napalm” scene is the best big moment of his career, and it's interesting to see what a contrast the larger-than-life Colonel Kilgore is in Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW, compared to the quiet Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER. Clearly Duvall was extremely adept at both styles of acting.

His Top-Five Films 


Up Next

I'd wager that Robert Duvall is one of the key actors of the last fifty years, and it's unlikely another character actor with come around anytime soon who's so perfect in such a wide variety of parts. Luckily, despite his age Duvall doesn't seem keen on slowing down any time soon.



About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.