Robert Duvall received his third Oscar nomination for portraying Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meechum in The Great Santini.
Duvall portrays the father of a family Bull Meechum a hot shot, gung-ho, marine fighter pilot, who treats his family just like he would treat soldiers under his command. It the early moments or any scenes where he is around other Marines, Duvall is quite hilarious with how over the top of a character Meechum is. The character is over the top, but Duvall is a good enough actor though to be able to portray the flamboyant Meechum without ever over acting. Quite a challenge but Duvall pulls it off with ease and humor.
Meechum is a character that could have been portrayed incredibly one dimensional, since the way the character acts is suppose to be sort of a one dimensional meat head, and he could have been easily played that one, or as a one dimensional villain due to his abusive nature toward his family. Duvall never portrays the character either way. I think in particular the abusive nature of the character is well portrayed by Duvall.
Duvall could have easily been just hammering in the abuse, or always showing Meechum as ready to do it constantly. It could have become a performance only on the surface, but Duvall carefully shows that there's much more to Bull Meechum's abuse, than only anger. Duvall carefully shows that this is just the only way Meechum has really learned how to deal with his family, and does not really have the ability to show them love. I think it is interesting because much of his cruelty comes from his belief that he is doing his family a service to make them better people. Duvall shows it as a systematic process, to make them a stronger group.
It would have been easy to show Meechum as having no love for his family, but Duvall subtly shows small instances of love Bull has for his family even when he is acting quite not so. Duvall shows that Meechum does have a limit for himself, and can sense when he has gone to far. Duvall shows this but never says this since Bull would never actually admit it. He does show also that he tries to give his children a good life, and can even be charming in some scenes such as when he first shows off the house to his children. These little charming moments, Duvall realistically mixes them in with the angry ones incredibly.
Duvall possibly shines best though in portraying Bull's specific relationship with his son Ben (Micheal O'Keefe). Bull pressures his son the most, and fights with him the most as well. It is sometimes an intense relationship, and Duvall is especially domineering, and forceful. Also in a moment where Ben finally beats him at basketball Bull is quite the sore loser and attempts to get an emotional reaction from his son anyway he can. A terrific scene of Duvall's, because he is just a completely real honest jerk, no movie acting about, making the scene a lot more effective than if he tried to make Bull some sort of villain rather than a cruel actual human being.
Even better moments are his quiet ones where he does show a restrained fatherly love for his son. Duvall never really indicates it directly but shows it there, and he naturally mixes in a warmness with a coldness that is incredible. His personal best moment though may certainly be a moment where he finds out he is wrong and his son is right. It is an outstanding scene for Duvall when Bull sees he is wrong, and his change and reaction is simply amazing. Overall Duvall has many incredible moments in this performance that easily could have been a one note character. Duvall creates a real portrait of a man, and somehow even creates sympathy for a man who is anything but sympathetic.