There aren’t many movies starring 78-year-old lead actors– Driving Miss Daisy and Gran Torino come readily to mind – so Robert Duvall can be forgiven for making a tour de force of Get Low (2009).
It’s an inferior film to the other two but nevertheless an interesting tale of people, their view about difference and the coming of less-simpler times.
Duvall’s Felix Bush is a hermit who comes to town to buy a funeral, only he wants to have the wake first.
He is at first scorned and treated with suspicion by some townsfolk as much through ignorance as sound reason, and heads straight back to his property. The greed of a going-broke undertaker (Bill Murray), helped by his honest assistant (Lucas Black), draws him back.
The undertaker, with sharpened salesman views learned in Chicago, proves an example of the change in America that small towns would soon have to accept.
Everyone looks pretty prosperous so I guessed this was pre-Depression Hicksville USA and the undertaker’s sense of business survival is further emphasised by the clamour of the residents to enter a $5 lottery to win the man’s farm.
They may all ‘hate’ the hermit but here’s a bargain to be had. Small towns were starting to learn that money speaks the language, something the whole country would learn to their detriment in 1929.
Get Low slowly unravels Felix Bush’s story – the reason for his cloistered life only coming towards the end – and his wanting to atone to the people and not to God. To do so, he must confess what happened in his past, something the townsfolk have conveniently made up for nearly 40 years.
Duvall is a delight as a man who has taken the road of self-incarceration for his perceived ‘crime’. Long one of film’s superior character actors, a look at Duvall’s filmography could almost put him in the class of Oscar winners suffering a downfall after winning the gold statuette.
Winning best actor in 1983, playing a has-been country singer in Tender Mercies, Duvall presaged Jeff Bridges doing the same in Crazy Heart by 27 years.
It was Duvall’s fourth nomination for a major Academy Award but his list of films goes from a Who’s Who of great US cinema to a series of lesser titles from 1983.
Only The Natural (1984) and Falling Down (1993) as well as the much-loved TV mini series Lonesome Dove (1989) stand anywhere near pre-1983 entries, which began with his small part as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird (1961).
Before this, Duvall had been busy in television and after it he went back to the smaller medium before appearing in some of the great movies of the late 1960s and 70s.
He was in Bullitt in 1968 and followed this with M*A*S*H, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Network and Apocalypse Now. In the latter, he spoke arguably the most famous, and often misquoted, line of the modern era.
The cavalry Stetson-wearing Lt Col Kilgore says: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (then gives a dissertation about the disintegrated former human life he witnessed when walking on a previously-bombed hill during the war) then: “Smelled like (before kneeling on the sand, sniffing and pondering) ….victory.”
Then came Tender Mercies and the Oscar before Duvall’s flame gradually burned slow. However, his body of work up to and including the Best Actor award makes him one of the revered elder statesmen of US film.
Sissy Spacek makes a welcome return in Get Low, playing a former lover of Felix, with a dead sister whose life was linked to the man’s pre-hermit life. It was good to see Sissy as an old woman because as a young – and very talented – actress she always looked very old to me.
Bill Murray’s understated cool, evident in almost every role he has ever played, gives some Yang to Duvall’s Yin but this is the veteran’s film – end of story.