Careening down the road behind the wheel of a sturdy old Cadillac, Robert Duvall makes his intent clear: "I want some singin' and dancin'. And a woman. I want me a woman." With little more than a sharp tongue, pink and frequently squirming loose in anticipation, the weather-beaten octogenarian bullies his college-aged Yankee grandson into taking a 200-mile adventure south of the border in the new A Night in Old Mexico, and though only a movie—an independent one with limited distribution, at that—it's quite easy to imagine Duvall taking this journey and making these irascible demands in real life.
A reunion of sorts with William D. Wittliff, the writer behind 1989's Lonesome Dove miniseries, Old Mexico marks the latest starring vehicle for a veteran screen actor who's spent a great deal of his lengthy career in pairs, ensembles, and otherwise supporting roles. Lacking in matinee-idol good looks and having already gone considerably bald late in his thirties, Duvall never met Hollywood's implicit shallow criteria for movie stardom. Though his credits date back some five and a half decades, many of his best-known parts, like the Godfather saga's adopted consigliere Tom Hagen or the napalm-loving Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore of Apocalypse Now, were in films where he's not the intended focus. Nonetheless, he's stolen the spotlight often enough.
Modern moviegoers yearning for Real Men in this cinematic golden age of costumed brooders, laughable action-adventure goons, and self-effacing comic wimps need look no further than the San Diego-born Duvall's sprawling filmography for unvarnished, imperfect, but exceedingly honest portrayals of American manhood. Detectives, dictators, newsmen, preachers, and soldiers alike comprise his panoply of roles. He's played both kinds of Texans—ranchers and rangers—and frequently embodied complex father figures that many might find uncomfortably familiar. He's in damn good company too, having acted alongside the likes of James Caan, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, the unsung Joe Don Baker, and John Wayne; his directors include Sam Peckinpah (The Killer Elite), John Sturges (The Eagle Has Landed), and Francis Ford Coppola.
Though nominated for six Oscars thus far, Duvall scored his sole win with 1983's now-largely overlooked Tender Mercies, carving out a distinctly American victory by humbly beating out three Brits and a Scotsman in the Best Actor category. Set largely in a small Texas town, it's undeniably an American movie, telling the story of down-on-his-luck country singer Mac Sledge rebuilding his life in the aftermath of alcoholism and divorce. Estranged from fame and family, he picks himself up by the proverbial bootstraps at a roadside motel: Having hit his rock bottom, and unable to pay for his meager accommodations, he offers to work for it, fixing doors, picking up roadside trash, and pumping gas for the proprietor, a protective single mother with an inquisitive young son.
Without the use of any hokey Hollywood rom-com hijinks, their business arrangement leads to a new marriage, and with it another chance at fatherhood. Sledge's damage manifests in small ways, as in an early interaction with the boy: "Don't throw stones at me, son," he admonishes, soft yet stern. It's the foundation of a relationship based on respect. (Compounding the obvious plot parallels, Duvall also played a supporting character in 2009's Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges his own Oscar.)
Robert Duvall doesn't tend to play perfect men. He's embodied many admirable ones, sure, like the dedicated publisher behind 1994's The Paper, or the most grizzled end-times survivor in 2009's The Road, or just about any of the heroes and anti-heroes of his many beloved Westerns. However, when necessary, he can inhabit some unflattering and even downright unlikeable roles, like the defensively brusque aged-out hitman of 2002's self-directed Assassination Tango, the hypercompetitive pee-wee soccer coach of 2005's Kicking and Screaming, or the aforementioned desensitized militarist of Apocalypse Now.
In 1973's The Outfit, he even took on one of the most revered crooks ever to jump off the page: the career criminal of Richard Starks' classic Parker novels. Though best encapsulated by Lee Marvin in 1967's undeniable classic Point Blank, Duvall's portrayal of this frequently double-crossed and revenge-seeking crook remains the best alternative. (Apologies to Mel Gibson and Jason Statham.) Renamed Earl Macklin for whatever reason, Duvall's antihero settles his scores with a principled code of conduct. After a shadowy, Mafia-esque crime syndicate whacks his brother and then puts an unsuccessful contract out on his life, he teams up with pal Joe Don Baker—who really had a dynamite year in '73, starring in Walking Tall and Charley Varrick—to rob and terrorize the outfit's myriad operations, most of which involve some form of illegal gambling.
Throughout this retributory spree, Duvall doles out hard-edged one-liners like "Die someplace else," "He tried to kill me; why shouldn't I hurt him?" and "I don't talk to the guys wearing the aprons" while drinking straight Irish whiskey, procuring guns from a suitcase-wielding old-timer, and bedding Karen Black in her prime. Unabashedly bald and in his early forties, he's nonetheless way cooler here than any of the roided-out mooks and handsome boneheads of today's action fare.
The imperfections inherent in Duvall's characters are often what make them so compelling, and true. In 1979's The Great Santini, he plays a larger-than-life titular patriarch whose tough love not infrequently turns to intolerance and abuse. A grounded pilot ace, a Marine without a war, he lacks the aggressive outlet of Lt. Col. Kilgore's Vietnam and thus takes his frustrations out on his family. He's not an enviable dad, especially when he shifts from comically waking his children at boot camp hours to laying forceful hands on his patient, silently suffering wife.
With his "Hack It or Pack It" attitude, Santini's perhaps the worst kind of cinematic antagonist, one unaware of his own villainy and more real than any Green Goblin or President Snow. Yet that doesn't mean he can't teach us something. Though at times difficult to watch, The Great Santini presents a view of domestic life without sugarcoating or overplaying for cheap dramatic effect. His eldest son, living in that immense looming shadow, learns to understand him and love him even with his terrible flaws. Even a deeply flawed parent can impart something of worth to his son: America is a bad father more often than we'd like to admit.
Duvall's embodiment of this country's prior centuries and its masculinity sticks out like a sore, calloused thumb in modern times. These days, he's often portrayed as a precious relic, some curiosity of the past. Late-night hosts treat him more gently than they ought, and he's taken more than a few grandfatherly-sage parts in recent pictures, big and small. So there's something extraordinarily heroic about him as the unrelenting old coot in A Night in Old Mexico. His grandson, played by baby-faced Brit Jeremy Irvine, looks upon his God-damning elder with horror and distaste for a good bit of the film, like most young adults would in his place. Yet amid the chaos of dodging asesinos and Day of the Dead revelers, a masculine wisdom prevails, burning and raving at the close of the day.
"There's a lot more exciting things in this old life than setting around suckin' air and pulling on your peter," the old rancher grumbles. "But you gotta cut loose and go for it. Go for 'em every goddamn chance you get, cause the chances run out." It's the American Dream, fellas. Go get it.