In 1981, the New York Times declared him America’s greatest actor. Long before that, before his great success on film, the acting guru Sanford Meisner said, “There are two great actors in America, the first is Brando, whose best work is behind him, and the second is Robert Duvall.” What’s noteworthy is that over the years we are lucky to have witnessed so many good Robert Duvall movies.
His breakthrough, or what should have been his breakthrough came as Boo Radley in the classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1962) and though perfect in a silent role it would be another decade before he truly broke through with his sublime performance as Tom Hagen in ‘The Godfather’ (1972).
The truth is all that matters to Duvall in his art, and he gets there his way. God help the director who tries to tell him how to get there or how to play the part; he has been known to tell them exactly what he thinks, or what to do with their opinion. Not the method actor that he claims to be, he however does share the obsession with truth the method seeks.
For Duvall it is always about the truth, the honesty, the authenticity of the work; nothing is more important, and he strives for that with research, meticulous preparation, and watching people. He has been known to base the creation of his characters by something he noticed in the manner someone gestured or spoke. With that said, here is the list of top Robert Duvall films, selected from his impressive filmography. You can also watch some of these best Robert Duvall movies on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Both boogeyman and saviour of the children, Boo is a simple-minded adult, sheltered much of his life to protect him from ridicule. When Scout sees him and whispers, “hey Boo” we see him for the first time, a man child with shocking white hair, and his eyes soften at her voice. She leads him away by the hand knowing she is safe with him and always will be.
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9. True Confessions (1981)
Opposite Robert De Niro who portrays his brother, Duvall is excellent as the tough as nails outspoken cop on the trail of a killer. His search takes him into his brother’s world, the halls of the Catholic Church, where the two will collide over right and wrong. Set in the forties, it is a powerful noir bolstered by the performances of the two great actors who deliver fine performances that were overlooked by the Academy.
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8. The Great Santini (1980)
As Bull Meechum, the peacetime warrior without a war, it seems the dedicated marine declares war on his children, referring to them as hogs and bullying them as though they were in the marines. They respect him, they fear him, but do they love him? The sequence where he berates his eldest after being bested in a game of 21 is alarming in its nastiness.
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7. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Again as Tom Hagen, the lawyer of the Corlene crime family, he emerges as the man Michael can trust, at least he says so, even though he does not. Tom watches as Michael loses his moral soul, wiping out everyone who stands in his way, lying to a congressional committee on crime where Hagen defends him. Again in the background, he slips in and out of the story with ease, and when he is not present in Part III, we realize how he is missed.
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6. Open Range (2003)
One of the finest of the modern westerns, this one directed with gritty realism by Kevin Costner, and Duvall is well cast as the head of a group of law-abiding free grazers. Attacked by a local cattle baron, who murders one of their group, declaring war on them, Duvall and Costner lash back. Duvall is fatherly as Boss Spearman, yet more than willing to jump into a gunfight when called on. Sublime in every way.
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5. Broken Trail (2005)
Another venture into TV saw Duvall do Emmy winning work as a tough old rancher, who with his long lost nephew rescues a group of Chinese women and takes them across the country to safety. In pursuit are the buyers and pimps of the women, who want their property back. Duvall is outstanding in the film, working well with Thomas Haden Church. One of those rare actors who seems at home in a western.
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4. Tender Mercies (1983)
The actor won his only Academy Award for his sad and subtle performance as Mac Sledge, a washed up country singer who finds redemption in the arms of a younger woman, and slowly works his way back into the business. Duvall did all of his singing in the film, very well in fact, but it is the heartache he carries in the film that won him the Oscar. A beautiful little film about the human condition, a tad muted for some, but the quiet emotional power cannot be denied.
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3. Lonesome Dove (1988)
In this remarkable TV mini series, Duvall is the fearless former Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae, who has partnered all his life with Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones), best friends who could not be more unlike each other. In retirement, Gus pushes Call for one more adventure, moving a massive herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. The chemistry between the pair is a joy to witness, acting at its best, and each does superb work. Gus’ death scene is heartbreaking, but what you will remember is how he lives and how truly he was alive every day of his life. “It ain’t about dying’ Woodrow, it’s about livin'”.
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2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
As great as the film is, and it is astounding, it never quite recovers form the moment we lose Duvall. For fifteen startling minutes his Kilgore takes charge of the film and it is stunning. Stalking the beach, oblivious to the bullets whizzing past or bombs going off, he never flinches, so confident is he that no harm will befall him. And of course he utters that famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Never before has any performance made so clear a love of combat.
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1. The Apostle (1997)
For years Duvall tried to get this made, approaching the studios after winning an Oscar hoping it gave him some clout. At one point Sidney Lumet was going to direct, at another point he asked Coppola before finally financing and deciding to direct it himself. Casting himself in the role he had written, he gives the greatest performance of his career. As a flawed Pentacostal minister possessed by a furious energy – he kills a man before fleeing into the backwoods of the Deep South – the actor is electrifying. Truly a man of God, he is nonetheless a criminal and knows himself must atone. Watching him overcome with the fever of the Lord is something to see. Extraordinary, and he should have won his second Oscar for this.
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