Hollywood Needs More Robert Duvalls

Clockwise from top left: Robert Duvall as Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), Tom Hagen in “The Godfather” (1972), Joseph Stalin in “Stalin” (1992), Gus McCrae in “Lonesome Dove” (1989), and Bob Hodges in “Colors” (1988)


The Wall Street Journal had a great piece and interview with the great Robert Duvall last Friday. Interview here:
The son of a naval officer, Mr. Duvall spent most of his childhood in Annapolis, Md. His family tree, however, has deep roots in Northern Virginia. They were Union sympathizers who had to survive the chaos of the Civil War while somewhat stranded behind enemy lines. The actor’s paternal grandfather, born in 1861, was christened Abraham Lincoln Duvall.

Twenty feet from Mr. Duvall’s front door stands a shagbark hickory with a trunk as wide as a train car. He doesn’t know exactly how old the tree is, but it “goes back to the 19th century, easy.” It almost certainly gave shade to the Union and Confederate soldiers who passed through en route to successive bloody battles at nearby Manassas Junction. “We thought it would come down during the last hurricane,” Mr. Duvall says, “but it didn’t.”

With Confederate monuments and memorials being toppled across the South, a Northerner like me can’t help but note that the street names in this pleasant village are heavy with historical freight—Lee, Pickett, Stuart, Forrest. “Stonewall Jackson marched right through,” says Mr. Duvall. “Bull Run is just down the road.”

Today the Old Dominion is a different kind of battleground. Hillary Clinton carried Virginia with 49.9% of the vote in 2016, but Fauquier County went 59.6% for her opponent. This is Trump country, not the kind of place you might expect to find Hollywood royalty.

The mention of the president’s name causes Mr. Duvall to stiffen. Ask him about football, showjumping or Brando, and he lights up. Ask him about politics, and his eyes narrow: “I’m not interested in making any statements.”

Mr. Duvall’s reticence is understandable. As one of the more famous Republicans in the motion-picture business, he is aware that certain political opinions can crimp a film career. Being an outspoken conservative “can be a very limiting thing,” he admits. That’s why he’s always careful around the topic—especially, it appears, with strangers from New York City.

“Nothing has hurt my career,” he insists. “I don’t talk politics, but nothing has hurt my career.”

In 2008 Mr. Duvall campaigned for John McCain and narrated a video for the GOP convention. In 2012 he hosted a party at Byrnley Farm that reportedly raised $800,000 for Mitt Romney. Lately he has shied away from candidates and campaigns, but he agrees that actors who cling to the coasts may have trouble appreciating that there are two sides—at least—to every political argument.

If you scratch beneath the surface in liberal Hollywood, “you can find some hypocrisy,” he says. Such as the tendency of highly paid actors to sound off at award shows? “Yeah. I mean, how informed are they? How informed is anybody, really?” he asks, his face turning hard. Have Hollywood liberals read Thomas Sowell ? Mr. Duvall has. Have they read Ayaan Hirsi Ali? “I’ve got a lot of respect for that woman,” he says.

When movie stars pontificate about politics, “I get a little like this,” he says, cringing. “I want to tell them to take it easy.” Heeding his own advice, that’s as much as he’ll say on the record. He hasn’t survived a half-century in the film business by speaking freely with journalists.

Mr. Duvall used his own Oscar acceptance speech in 1984 to thank the country-music superstars who inspired his “Tender Mercies” performance. The validation of his friends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson, he says now, meant more to him than any review—though some of the criticism still stings: “There were people who really loved that movie, but there was a strain of people in Washington and New York who hated it.” Anyone in particular? “Yeah,” he says without hesitation. “ Pauline Kael. ”

Duvall is one of my all-time favorites. I’m not sure I can add to that other than my gratitude for a lifetime of great work.

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