When Robert Duvall appears onscreen in We Own the Night, opening tomorrow, he'll be doing something he's done a lot of lately: standing aside to let his younger costars shine. And Duvall doesn't go easy on himself, either. Playing the father of characters played by Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix -- both Academy Award nominees for their acting -- means he's going up against actors who will give back as good as they get from him. He did the same in this spring's underappreciated Lucky You (just out on DVD), in which he goes mano a mano with the powerful Eric Bana in what are some of the film's best moments. Duvall takes a bigger step back in the wicked satire Thank You for Smoking, appearing briefly -- but unforgettably -- as a tobacco baron for whom "unscrupulous" is a general description. (If you're a Duvall fan, don't miss the absolutely riveting Western Broken Trail; it's more a traditional leading role for Duvall, and it demonstrates that he's not standing aside cuz he ain't got it no more -- he's still got it.)
Duvall's not alone in taking it easy these days. Some of the most commanding actors of his generation are joining him outside the spotlight. Like Al Pacino, who chews up only a little scenery as a weasely casino owner in Ocean's Thirteen (coming to DVD next month), then lets George Clooney and Brad Pitt take over. Pacino doesn't fare so well when the actor he's stepping aside for can't command the spotlight: he bowls over Matthew McConaughey in Two for the Money, which makes Pacino's scenery chewing in this one less fun.
Who else isn't starring in movies anymore, but still making a splash from stage right or left? How about Dustin Hoffman? His literature expert in Stranger Than Fiction and judge in Runaway Jury are small roles, but unforgettable ones. How about Gene Hackman? He's in Runaway Jury, too, as a wonderfully sleazy lawyer, and his performance as the patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums is a little masterpiece. How about Robert De Niro, making a brief but potent appearance in The Good Shepherd? How about Jack Nicholson's astonishing turn as the mob boss in The Departed?
Is Hollywood pushing older actors aside? With most movies aimed at teen and twentysomething audiences that could well be the case. At least the guys still get to hang around the big screen; older actresses have been moving to TV to find juicy roles. No wonder they're making the best of it.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
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