Thursday, September 29, 2011

Double Feature: Robert Duvall and ... Robert Duvall!

The great Robert Duvall
From his non-speaking movie debut as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird to the present day, Robert Duvall has been a chameleon star of the first order.  For most of the 50 years of his career, he has rarely looked the same way twice in any part.  Duvall submerges himself so completely in a character, I remember being surprised one day when reminded that he was in The Godfather, so completely did he become the character Tom Hagen.  It is no difficult task to make a double feature out of two Duvall movies and believe you are watching two different men.  My double feature highlights Tomorrow (1972) and The Great Santini (1979).  Besides showcasing Duvall's amazing range, these are also my two favorite movies of all the great ones he has made.  Tomorrow is Duvall's favorite of his performances.  The Great Santini is my favorite of all the great roles he has played.

Tomorrow is a little film with a great legacy.  Released by independent Filmgroup Productions, directed by Joseph Anthony (The Rainmaker), and given beautifully stark black and white cinematography by Allan Green, Tomorrow is considered the best of many attempts to translate Faulkner to screen, notoriously difficult to do.  Faulkner himself was very pleased with the marvelous original play turned to screenplay of his story by writer Horton Foote (other screenplay adaptations: To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies.)  Faulkner's title is taken from one of Shakespeare's most famous lines, from Macbeth:  "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time..."

Fentry (Duvall) and Sarah (Bellin)
Filmed on location in Mississippi, Duvall plays Jackson Fentry, a gentle, loving, semi-literate man who has never known anything but hard work and the hand-to-mouth living of a hard-scrabble farmer.  Duvall's accent is so authentic as to be almost difficult to understand at first, but that does not last long.  Fentry is a man to whom words come slowly, but what he has to say is said with truth and love, however uneducated he may be.  The story is told in flashback, beginning with an older Fentry as the sole hold-out for a guilty vote in the trial of a troubled young man.  Fentry remembers back to years past when he took into his poor shack a woman whose husband has left her homeless and pregnant.  Olga Bellin plays Sarah, suspicious and frightened at first, then loving and grateful to the kind man who rarely speaks, but cares for her as best he can in the primitive circumstances of his life.  Fentry calls the abandoned Sarah his wife, and when Sarah dies from childbirth, he names the infant boy Jackson Longstreet Fentry.  Fentry and Jackson Longstreet are happy during the boy's young years, the child receiving all that Fentry has to give.  Then one day, the family of Jackson Longstreet's real father comes to call.

Fentry and Jackson Longstreet
Tomorrow is a film that any Duvall admirer must experience, and that any movie-lover would cherish. 

The Great Santini was released in 1979 by Bing Crosby Productions.  Directed by Lewis John Carolino (also the writer of a favorite movie of mine, Resurrection), it is a completely personal, totally true-to-life story of author Pat Conroy's career-Marine father and his experiences growing up in a complex, dysfunctional family run by this harsh, yet caring "warrior without a war."  First released straight-to-tape as The Ace, the movie was so popular that it was pulled from home release and brought to theatres as The Great Santini.  It is hard to believe that this movie was not recognized by the makers in the first place as the great work it is, and was released in such a strange manner.

Bull Meechum (Duvall) and his children
as they face life in a new town.
Colonel Virgil "Bull" Meechum runs his family like he runs his squadron of Marine fighter pilots -- with harsh discipline, extreme expectations and abusive manner.  However, Bull Meechum also loves his wife and children.  He is as difficult to love as he is to hate -- a man who suffers from the same background as the one he creates for his own children.  Bull Meechum is a respected Marine pilot, well-liked by his peers, feared by his subordinates, a thorn in the side of his superiors.  He is an aggressive, confident-seeming man with a wickedly funny sense of humor.  His wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) adores him, but also recognizes him for what he is.  His four children fear and love him in extremes.  The family's story is told through the experiences of the teenage son, Ben (Michael O'Keefe), and his relationship with his father.  The oldest daughter, also a teenager, is Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky), and she plays a pivotal role.  Bull treats Ben just as his nickname reveals -- he bullies him into being a man.  A basketball game played in the family's backyard turns into a deadly competition between father and son, and is a prime example of Bull's own problems as well as his family's.  The family has just made another of many moves to a base in South Carolina, and Bull gives his usual speech to the children about avoiding fear, taking the new town by storm, eating life before life eats them.  That is Bull Meechum's approach to the world.

Ben and Lillian (Danner)
before the family game
Lillian Meechum spends most of her time refereeing between Bull and his children, particularly the two oldest.  Ben is expected to excel at basketball, and a high school varsity game is another pivotal point of the story.  Mary Anne loves to stir the pot, and her mother tries to impart some wisdom: 
Lillian: "Your father is very nervous about this game. Look at me, young lady! Look at me! You've got to interpret the signals he gives off!"
Mary Anne: "No problem! He always gives off the signals of a psychopathic killer, so it really doesn't matter how you interpret them!"

In an attempt to get attention from her father, Mary Anne displays not only her sharp humor, but also an intelligent and desperate need for his approval.  It is a telling scene, but not without humor.  Part of the conversation gives you an idea:
Mary Anne: "Hey Dad, why do you love me more than your other children?"
Bull:  "Beat it, I'm reading the sports page."
Mary Anne: "Let's have a conversation Dad. Let's bare our souls and get to know one another."
Bull: "I don't want you to get to know me. I like being an enigma, like a Chink. Now scram."
Mary Anne: "Am I a Meechum Dad? Can girls be real Meechums; girls without jump shots? Or am I a simple form of Meechum, like in biology. Mary Anne, the one-celled Meechum."

The story revolves around Ben, with wonderful subplots involving fascinating and heartrending characters, and yet, to me, Mary Anne stands out as the sharply-intelligent, frustrated voice of all the children in their feelings about their father.

Conroy's father Donald called himself  the Great Santini after a magician he once saw.  Conroy wrote a completely unsanitized version of his father's abuse and skewed love, and yet the book and the movie brought the family back together again from a long period of estrangement.  Donald Conroy, with all of his problems, loved his children, and swallowed his lifelong pride to see that he needed to heal his family.  On his tombstone, Donald Conroy asked for the epitaph "The Great Santini".  This backstory has as much heartache and triumph as the movie.  Duvall never gave a better performance, and this is one role in which I cannot imagine any other actor. 

Robert Duvall, one man, two completely different roles -- a great double feature of a great actor.

(Quotes from IMDB)


  1. Becks ,I have not seen Tomorrow. I'm with you on the Great Santini, one of my all time favorite Duvall roles, the whole cast is wonderful One the most honest films, about the love hate father son dynamic , October Skies is the other. I love this film

  2. Becky, I haven't seen TOMORROW either, but am a big fan of THE GREAT SANTINI. The basketball scene is what I remember best about it. It's a low-key, honest film which plays to Duvall's strength. My favorite Duvall film is probably TENDER MERCIES, which I just watched recently. As you wrote, Duvall is adept at blending into his characters and few actors can get so much of saying so little. This was a great tribute to a fine actor and a great way to end our month of double-features!

  3. Paul: I loved October Skies too. Actually, there are few films Duvall has made that I don't like, if only for his performances. I hope you get to see Tomorrow someday. It is extraordinary, and I can see why Duvall considers it his best performance.
    Rick: That basketball scene is so well-filmed, chilling and disturbing. The scene afterward, with the mother and son watching Bull practice in the rain always brings tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for you lovely compliment.

  4. Becky, what an extraordinary tribute you have paid to Robert Duvall. I haven't seen either film you profiled but found your descriptions to be very heartfelt. Knowing that Horton Foote adapted Faulkner's "Tomorrow Never Dies" makes me really want to see that work especially because I absolutely love "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies." Knowing how much you care for Duvall's work in "The Great Santini" makes me want to see it for that reason. Thanks for giving us such a wonderful review of two works of a very talented performer. Awesome!

  5. Becky, great write-up for a superb actor. Like the others who've left comments, I haven't seen TOMORROW, but I very much enjoyed THE GREAT SANTINI. Robert Duvall is wonderful. I also really liked him in THE APOSTLE, which he wrote and directed, and, of course, it's hard to forget that he has the oft-quoted line from APOCALYPSE NOW, in which he expresses his love of napalm's fragrance at breakfast time. Splendid read, Becky. A double feature with Duvall is excellent!

  6. Before IFC started interrupting films with commercials like their sister channel (which will go nameless, as this is a family blog) I actually got to see Tomorrow and have always agreed with Duvall that it's his best work. (It's also the best screen adaptation of anything written by William Faulkner, whom I always remember as the guy who wasn't supposed to like Car 54.)

    In a sane world, Duvall would have won his Oscar for that film but because of the way Academy Awards work (they're pretty much career honors as opposed to singling out excellence for a film) he won for Tender Mercies...a movie I liked at the time but which unfortunately lost its shine. I'm also not as sold on The Great Santini as some folks (Pat Conroy is not one of my favorite authors insomuch as I can't really identify with the machismo of many of his Southern males) but I certainly can't argue that Duvall was first-rate in it. (And I'll watch Blythe Danner reading a phone book.)

  7. It is a shame that IFC had to do that - they show wonderful films, and COMMERCIALS! Tomorrow is extraordinary - you're the first person who has commented who has seen it. It should be shown more often. I thought I was remarkably restrained in not mentioning that literary giant William Faulkner really liked...that show. I understand he wanted this put on his tombstone: "Don't read The Sound and the Fury -- watch "Car 54, Where are You?"

    I liked Tender Mercies, but I agree it was not what he should have received the Oscar for. Either of these movies would have been more appropriate. I do love Santini -- and I can certainly see why a red-blooded American male would watch Blythe Danner scrub the floor!

    Thanks for coming over, Ivan...I appreciate it!