In his new movie, A Civil Action, about a small town where children have been devastated by industrial pollution, Robert Duvall plays one tough lawyer -- which is fitting for a guy who speaks only the bald truth
By Josh Young
The setting couldn't be more bucolic: a rolling 360-acre farm just outside The Plains, Virginia, a one-horse town of clapboard houses and rambling roses. And the man on the proverbial soapbox couldn't be more revered: Robert Duvall, the Academy Award-winning actor who has gained legendary status for his stunningly precise performances in at least a dozen of the most important films of the last century. In this majestic moment, Duvall's rant is pure irrepressible vitriol. The target: America's favorite songbird.
"Barbra Streisand crossed a picket line of women in Las Vegas and sang for something like $20 million for two nights," Duvall complains, batting the air with a who-needs-her gesture. "I'm not a big Barbra Streisand fan. She said if George Bush were re-elected, she'd move to England." His voice trails off, then guns back. "Well, let her move. Let her move! Fast!"
The 68-year-old actor who has spent four decades hiding in salt-of-the-earth American stoics on-screen is starved for political conversation, even if the political talk on this day is more what someone in these parts might call a good old-fashioned turkey shoot. "I always find that there is a catch with people like her, some form of hypocrisy," Duvall continues. "Barbra Streisand won't go to Colorado because they passed a law that was a little prejudicial to gays, but I'll bet she'll go to Havana, Cuba, where they quarantine gays."
Dressed in faded black jeans, black zippered boots, and a black Patagonia sweatshirt, Duvall sits on a white couch in the living room of his picture- book, Ralph Lauren farmhouse, amiably grousing. He finds the feminists' take on Washington's sex scandals particularly maddening: "Kelly Flinn didn't love her country any less than Bill Clinton loves his country, and she was ousted," he says. "I laugh at the feminist movement. They have such a double standard. I think people like Gloria Steinem want to be next in line with Bill Clinton on a one-to-one sexual level. They think, If this chunky little Monica Lewinsky girl can get him, what about me? Judge [Clarence] Thomas and [Senator Robert] Packwood were amateurs compared to Clinton. Amateurs!" After a beat, he hits his point. "But they were conservatives. It's all partisan politics."
Duvall admits his own political radar has been more sensitive since he stared into the maw of Sam Donaldson across a rope line. "Mr. Duvall," Donaldson barked, "tell us about the president's mood!" It was three days after the Lewinsky scandal broke, and Duvall was at the White House for a presidential screening of the film The Apostle -- his 13-year labor of love, which he wrote, directed, starred in, and financed. He says Clinton reminded him of a high-level Pentecostal preacher, not unlike the flawed evangelist Duvall played in the film. "Clinton's a wheeler-dealer, and from afar he repulses you, but one-to-one he's different," Duvall says. "There's something about his wooing of Hollywood that is so rife, yet when you meet the guy, he's interesting to sit down and talk to."
That night, the guests at the screening seemed to fancy themselves the Dian Fosseys of political primate study. They debated what it meant when Bill and Hillary Clinton held hands during the movie. When asked about the coincidence that Farrah Fawcett, who played Duvall's cheating wife in The Apostle, and Clinton took a bathroom break at the same time, the actor rolls his eyes and whistles. "Well," he says after a long pause, "you know what Tommy Lee Jones, who roomed with Al Gore at Harvard, says about all this. He says, 'I'm for pussy. What's wrong with more pussy?'" Duvall leans back and breaks into laughter.
Bobby Duvall -- no one calls him Robert -- is a guy who likes a spicy conversation that plays with life's ambiguities. The talk traverses politics, religion, and history, touches on his first love, the tango, and always slingshots back to the subject of food. (Case in point: If one brings up Duvall's battles with Australian directors Bruce Beresford on Tender Mercies or with Simon Wincer on Lonesome Dove, Duvall tells you that the best Greek meal he ever ate was in Melbourne.) Although he's met three presidents (Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan) and everyone who is anyone in Hollywood, he'd rather talk to regular folk any day.
"It's very easy for people in Hollywood or Hyannisport or these rich enclaves to say so-and-so should be penalized for not hiring certain minorities," Duvall says. "But Hollywood is the most anti-affirmative action town in America. You name me one black or Hispanic head of a studio or agency. They may throw out a token. But they shouldn't criticize General Motors when they're worse. Worse! And yet they're all in bed with the president. It's too easy."
Duvall continues with his favorite theme, hypocrisy. "Oliver Stone says Hollywood is the most democratic town in America," Duvall says. "If it's so democratic, why isn't there a policy that allows any actor to go up to the front gate of a studio and try out for any movie? It's a caste system. One guy asked me, 'How can you be an actor and be a Republican?' I can vote either way. But how can you boil it down to [political affiliation]? All the atrocities against blacks in the South were committed by Democratic sheriffs."
Duvall shakes his head and rubs his forehead. "In some people's eyes, a guy who stays in the ghetto and beats his wife and votes Democratic is better than someone who votes Republican. It's another form of keeping the blacks down."
This isn't a guy who keeps his opinions just to himself. In 1994, when Disney was trying to build its doomed historical theme park near the Manassas battlefield eight miles from his farm, the actor drove to a congressional hearing and lent his name to the opposition. To this day, he remains disgusted with Disney chairman Michael Eisner. "I wanted to build an amusement park in Eisner's front yard," he quips. "This guy had a Republican governor [George Allen of Virginia] in one pocket and all of the Clinton administration in the other pocket. He was so arrogant and so definitively tacky."
In the war of words, Allen called Duvall and his fellow activists smug. "I said, 'If I'm smug, I learned from the master, Michael Eisner,'" recalls Duvall, who refused to take Allen's phone call the day after the meeting. "If anybody was smug, it was the Disney contingent. They were full of shit. They were saying it was for education, but it was for money. They were putting up a theme park on historic grounds in the name of whatever, and I'm sure Mr. Gore and the rest of them thought it was pretty nifty."
Fear of being black-listed by Disney's movie divisions crossed Duvall's mind but didn't curb his rhetoric. "My theory is that no matter how many enemies you make, you can always work for their enemies," he says.
This month, Duvall gets to exorcise some of his political passion on the big screen. He plays corporate lawyer Jerome Facher in A Civil Action, based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr. The true story involves a group of families in Woburn, Massachusetts, who accused the huge companies, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, of contaminating local wells with chemicals that caused the death of their children -- six deaths in all. A fixture on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for more than two years, the book examines how corporations can pollute the land and hide behind the fine points of the civil justice system -- which comes off as more of a system than as civil or just. "The story resonates with so many people because it goes right to the heart of civilized living," explains Jan Schlichtmann, the families' attorney. "How do we treat each other? How do we treat the earth? This story is about how, if we don't get it right, we're going to kill each other."
Although the plaintiffs in A Civil Action weren't successful in court, the cause against corporate polluters won a larger victory. The groundbreaking research done by the plaintiffs' experts was the first time a scientific and medical link was established between local pollution and cancer. The information caused the EPA to intervene and push W.R. Grace, Beatrice, and four other companies into a $69.4 million, 50-year cleanup program in Woburn. The book's success has made the case national, and corporations are now changing their approach from contention to contrition. When a high incidence of children with cancer was recently discovered in Toms River, New Jersey, the offending companies agreed to share information with the families to find a solution. Of the lasting impact of A Civil Action, Schlichtmann says, "It changed regulatory behavior, it changed company behavior, and it changed community behavior." He adds, "In the end, the families won. Proof of that is they're making a movie out of it."
Duvall's character, Facher, who defends the conglomerate Beatrice, is an esteemed litigator and master of the vicissitudes of the court system. To prepare for the role, Duvall relied more on an offhand comment from a lawyer he met on the Boston subway than he did on what the real-life Facher told him. "[The guy on the subway] said my guy was cold, like ice," Duvall recalls. "He's not a bad guy, but the implication was he's not necessarily a good guy."
Duvall found Facher's own recollections tainted by the prospect that an Oscar-winning actor was playing him in a big Hollywood movie. When Duvall pressed the lawyer during a dinner they had together, Facher sugarcoated his actions in hopes that Duvall would paint a more sympathetic picture of him than the book did. "I said to Facher, 'Come on, you hid [evidence],'" Duvall says. "He just laughed. Everybody has a price, and everybody loves Hollywood. Once the camera was up, this guy wanted to be there every day."
Schlichtmann, played by John Travolta, is a crusader who risks everything to bring out the truth. But A Civil Action isn't a simple tale of good versus evil. "Nothing's black-and-white," Duvall says. "People go to environmental meetings in Hollywood in their gas-guzzling Mercedes. There are always two sides."
The dramatic subject matter of A Civil Action made for a tense shoot. Duvall says he became paranoid one day when Travolta kept forgetting his lines, but Travolta assured him it was the pressure. Travolta now says the shorthand he and Duvall developed while filming Phenomenon eased the workdays. "When a movie is tough, it's easier to get through when you know someone and love them," Travolta says. "There is an effortlessness and an easiness about how we act together."
Travolta was so eager to work with Duvall again that he invited him to be in his next film, The General's Daughter. (Duvall wanted some time off.) "We're on the same wavelength as people and as actors," Travolta explains. "I'm so fond of Bobby and have so much respect for him that it's just a blast to be with him. We have the same feeling about life. He loves food and dancing, and I love food and dancing." When asked about Travolta, Duvall says, "He's great, just great, and he's always looking for a good hamburger."
One of Duvall's secrets to creating authentic everyman characters is the time he spends outside of Los Angeles and New York, cities that most actors only leave for location work. It's not that he doesn't love New York (where he used to have an apartment) and Los Angeles (one of his favorite cities) but, as he puts it, "When I talk to certain people from Kansas City or San Diego or Vancouver individually, I find more insightful questions asked than in New York."
Born in San Diego, Duvall grew up the middle child of three brothers in a working-class, Republican household. (His older brother, William, taught music at the University of Wisconsin; his younger brother, Jack, is an attorney.) His father was a Navy admiral, and his mother ran a cooking business. He attended grammar school in Annapolis, where his father was stationed, and high school in Maryland and St. Louis. His mother was a Christian Scientist, which led him to Principia College, where he majored in government before he discovered theater. His relationship with his father was remote until the end. "My dad was somewhat of a segregationist, but I found out that in the last part of his life he would send a pittance to [Southern Poverty Law Center co- founder] Julian Bond," Duvall says. "It's the last thing I would have expected from my father. I was very touched by that, very touched."
Duvall attributes his own political philosophy, moderate-leaning conservative, to his parents. He voted for Clinton the first time around to get rid of George Bush, but his ideal presidential ticket would include Colin Powell and Elizabeth Dole, not necessarily in that order. The only candidate he ever endorsed was New York City mayoral candidate Roy Innis, who, years earlier, had gotten into a shoving match on The Morton Downey, Jr., Show during a discussion on black leadership. "Any guy who would throw [activist] Al Sharpton on the floor gets my support," he says.
Duvall's film career began when Horton Foote suggested him for the role of the reclusive Boo Radley in the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, which Foote adapted. Since then, Duvall has portrayed characters in such films as MASH,The Godfather, Network, Apocalypse Now, Falling Down, and Deep Impact, all of which have brought political and social realities to life. The Apostle is probably the only movie ever admired equally by Howard Stern, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham. Duvall is so loved in Texas because of his performance in Lonesome Dove that when Ann Richards was governor, Duvall told her he could unseat her; she agreed. He has also played historic figures Joseph Stalin, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jesse James, and Adolf Eichmann. "For me, it's really about the character, not the issue," Duvall says.
If one chums the Hollywood waters with Duvall's name, one gets no shark attacks, only reverence. Irwin Winkler, who produced True Confessions, which starred Duvall and Robert De Niro, explains, "He has no ego." Nominated for five Oscars, Duvall won best actor for the 1983 drama Tender Mercies. Along with cops, mechanics, cowboys, singers, preachers, he has even played a black man, James Earl Jones's half brother in A Family Thing. In more than 100 roles, Tom Hanks marvels, "Robert Duvall has never hit a false beat in his life." And Gene Hackman calls him "hands down, the best film actor of my generation."
For his part, Duvall admires Brando, whom he describes as immensely gifted but lazy, and James Caan. "The set comes up a level when Jimmy's around," he says. The only actor he hated working with was Klaus Maria Brandauer, on The Lightship. "I don't know if his problem is that he just happens to come from the same country as Hitler or what," Duvall quips. He is also impressed by today's stars. "Young actors today are better than ever," he says, putting Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton at the top of the list. "They knock each other, but these are good actors. I don't care what anybody says."
As for critics "Let me put it this way,'" he says, answering the question with a story. "When I did Stalin, some critics didn't like it. But Nikita Mikhalkov's father, who was Stalin's personal poet, said I touched the soul of Stalin. It depends on who you're approved by."
Of the directors he's worked with -- a list that includes Robert Altman, George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Lumet, Barry Levinson, and Ron Howard -- his fondest memories are of the films he made with Francis Ford Coppola. He directed Duvall in The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, and the first two chapters of The Godfather. (It doesn't hurt that Coppola also introduced him to the tango.) "You can really mess with Coppola," Duvall says. "I walked into his house, and he's got a picture of Mao Zedong, so I say, 'What's a capitalist like you got a picture of Mao Zedong in your house for?' He turned and walked away."
Coppola visited Duvall in Virginia to convince him to return as the consigliere to the Corleones in The Godfather Part III. Duvall prepared his mother's crab cakes for Coppola, who had been pestering Duvall for the recipe for years. That afternoon he relented and wrote it out, but Coppola forgot to take it home. "He kept calling for the recipe," Duvall remembers. "He was more concerned that he forgot the recipe than whether I would do Godfather III."
The talks ultimately broke down over money. "That's all anybody was doing it for anyway," Duvall says. "If he's gonna wait 20 years, it's about money. Francis lives big. I said, 'You can pay Pacino twice what you pay me but not three or four times as much.' Francis had a very arrogant lawyer. It was beneath him to discuss it, so I said, 'Well, ciao.' I didn't miss any great experience." Coppola responds, "It was a blow to the film, but I was the one who was pretty much the loser in that." Indeed, Duvall never sent him the crab cake recipe either.
Duvall seems more comfortable analyzing his three failed marriages than deconstructing his acting techniques. "On my last two marriages they had to sign a prenuptial, and that's kind of a defeatist thing going in," he explains. "The first one, I wanted out, and that was the hardest thing because of the guilt. I'm not Jewish or Irish, but I had some guilt because I left her! The second one would've stayed. She was a good person underneath, and in some ways I cared for her the most. This last one would've taken the farm."
Duvall's third marriage, to Sharon Brophy, ended like a scene from a movie set in a small southern town, with the sheriff removing her from the property. Duvall says the downward spiral began while he was on location and his wife had an affair with the pool man. "In my house!" he fumes, banging the table. He adds that he has since redecorated. Duvall says the town really started buzzing when Brophy and her boyfriend threw naked swimming parties. "I've got some kind of a name to protect," Duvall says.
Through all that, Duvall is angriest at Brophy for making his tango dancing suffer. She was the first American dancer to perform on Broadway in Tango Argentino, but she refused to practice with Duvall. "I lost two years," he complains. "It's like marrying somebody who has the same religion -- until you're married."
Now he is happily living with his 26-year-old girlfriend of two years, Luciana Pedraza. She is tall and beautiful in a simple, South American way. He met her on one of his excursions to Argentina, the birthplace of the tango. "I picked somebody I knew nothing about," he says. "But I quit marriage. I'm no good at it. I let Luciana know that going in."
The two share a January 5 birthday and a passion for soccer, tennis, food, horses, and the tango (which they practice in a barn that he has converted for the purpose). Next to Duvall's Oscar on the fireplace mantel is a framed letter from Brando praising The Apostle. Brando closes the letter by telling Duvall to stop looking for his tangerine, because it doesn't exist. "I have no idea what he's talking about, but I found my tangerine right here," Duvall says, standing up to hug Pedraza.
When Pedraza leaves the room, Duvall confides that he's intrigued by the contradictions in her. "When I had to kiss Miranda Richardson (in The Apostle), Luciana was upset," he says. "I couldn't have dinner with the actresses in my movie to go over their parts, yet she liked The Unbearable Lightness of Being, with two women on top of each other. It's a double standard. When I told her my next film is going to have a violent love scene, she got on her knees and said, 'Oh, please don't.'"
The morning of conversation has made Duvall hungry, but he's nervous about taking me to the Rail Stop, the town's only restaurant, which he recently bought. It's the first day that lunch is being served under his ownership, and Pedraza, who manages the restaurant, has already reported a few kinks.
But when we stroll into the place, Duvall's apprehension turns to shock. It's as if he's playing a small-town restaurateur who can't believe his good fortune. The place is packed. As he greets the locals, a matronly woman bounds out of her chair and offers her hand. "Mr. Duvall, I drove five hours to eat here and meet you," she gushes. He clutches her arm. "Well, bless you," he responds.
We sit down at a small table in the back corner. Duvall leans forward. "I hear people say what it really comes down to is that we live in the best country in the world," he volunteers. "I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure we're better than Italy or England. I'm not so sure we're better than France, although I wouldn't want to live in France. We have the potential to be. We're like a big kid with a lot of talent that makes a lot of big mistakes.
"People put the English down, but at least they stood up and fought the Germans and didn't throw everything down and run to lunch like the French," he continues. "It goes back to an old friend who was a lifeguard. He saved three people's lives, and by the end of summer, nobody would speak to him. You save somebody's life, you've got something over them. We saved the French twice, and they still dump on us. They're great with food, but I can get a meal in this country that equals that."
Suffice it to say, the world need not worry about Bobby Duvall finding a meal
that suits him. In tiny Plains, he can sate his appetites, enjoying acclaim,
fame, and the affection of a young brown-haired beauty. No wonder he
sympathizes with the president.
George, January 1999