Thursday (Wednesday) Threes: The Answer

by | Nov 27th, 2009 | 12:50PM | Filed under: Threes

Whoo-eee, a whole bunch of you got this one right. I had a feeling it would be pretty easy, but I couldn't resist the chance to talk about some of my favorite older films and about an actor who we don't see as often in new films these days.

First up with the correct answer was Paul N.–Paul gets the homemade construction-paper medal! In second was Jennifer Rife and in third was Joan Jenkins. Congrats to all and to everyone who gave this one of our largest Threes turnouts!

So what actor was in To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, and MASH? Bring on the Inviso-Text! (And if you're new to the Threes, that translates as "highlight the white space below".)

Yes, it was the always-amazing Robert Duvall, appearing this weekend in both The Road in theaters and Four Christmases on DVD.

Our winner Paul declares Duvall one of his favorite actors of all time (and mentions his tremendous performance as Robert E. Lee in Gods and Generals) and it got me thinking how right Paul is. When we talk about the best male actors of the past 30 or so years, the conversation often revolves around the flashy awards-nabbing names like Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro, Nicholson. Someone like Duvall, who honestly does better work than any of those guys on any given film, sometimes gets sadly overlooked simply because he rarely goes for the sort of over-the-top, scenery chewing of some showier actors and he's never done much in the way of crowd-pleasing action or heroic tough-guy roles. The exceptions that loudly prove the rule would be Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now and Lt. Col. Bull Santini in The Great Santini–those are probably the better-known Duvall roles and the ones that get quoted the most.

But those aren't the Duvall roles I treasure. It's no coincidence that his first big-screen role was just a few mute on-screen moments as Arthur "Boo" Radley in the wonderful 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite films of all time). Duvall didn't have to do much as Boo–while the character is central to the film's themes, Boo's importance is through what others think and learn about him, and what he does off-screen, not what he does in his brief on-screen appearance. Still, Duvall brings that same sort of silent, contemplative grace to so many of his roles. Take for instance Tom Hagen in The Godfather I & II, who functions as the calm voice of reason in the midst of all the Machiavellian mayhem. Tom is not weak or squeamish, but Duvall gives him a quiet old-school nobility even as he competently helps Michael execute his competitors.

For those who grew up with Larry Linville as their Frank Burns, it can be tricky to warm to Duvall's much-less slap-sticky original version of the character in Robert Altman's 1970 adaptation of MASH. Duvall's Frank is much more of a stoic Puritan in the film, but his uptight, silent repression makes it even funnier when he snaps and comes unhinged. And in 1969's True Grit, Duvall played Ned Peppers–one of the menacing outlaw cohorts of the film's villainous Tom Chaney.

I could go on all day wandering through my favorite parts of Duvall's impressive filmography, but I'll just toss out a few more appreciations/recommendations and you can add your own faves in the comments: The jaded sportswriter Max Mercy in The Natural, Boss in Kevin Costner's wonderfully understated Open Range, and what I feel are truly his two greatest performances: E.F. Dewey in the magnificent Apostle (the scene with him and Billy Bob Thorton will end up on both actors' lifetime clip reel), and of course, Gus McCrae in the towering Lonesome Dove miniseries.

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