Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley

Harvard’s great poetry scholar Helen Vendler once said that the arts “situate us on the earth.”

In other words, the arts allow us to see our existence in this world more clearly. Working as they do in the realm of the senses, they deepen our sympathy for the human condition, help us feel what we ought to feel, direct our hearts towards what is worthy, and remind us of our place in the order of things.

At its best, film accomplishes exactly what Vendler says of the arts in general: Great films widen and illuminate our experience through a host of key elements provided by the director, screenwriter, cinematographer, cast, and all the crew members who arrange the thousands of details that make up a film.

The most immediate connection we experience in film is with the acting. Good acting arranges voice, body and movement, facial expression, interaction with others, and engagement with surrounding places and times. Actors arrange all of this in order to capture and represent to us the human experience. By drawing us into that arrangement, they illuminate our experience. They situate us on the earth.

For my money, no actor does this better than Robert Duvall. This article is the first in a series of three articles on Duvall in which I will reflect on several of his most humane roles. For this first installment, let’s begin with his first film role: Boo Radley in the 1962 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. (The majority of Duvall’s performance in this film is contained in this clip.)

The film takes place in 1930s Maycomb County, Alabama, which, like most of the south at the time, is economically depressed. The black and white filming lends the portrayal an added layer of authenticity. The story centers on a court case concerning the alleged assault of a young white woman, Mayella Ewell, by a young black man, Tom Robinson. The accused is defended by Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, who takes the job out of a deep sense of responsibility for justice and knowing full well the crucible before him of defending a black man against a white woman before an all-white jury in this highly segregated southern town. Atticus is a widower with two young children, Jem and Scout (his tomboy daughter). Robert Duvall’s character, Boo Radley, is not involved in the case itself, but he lives next door to the Finch home. Near the end of the film, well after the trial is over, Boo unexpectedly becomes the Finch children’s protector against the vengeful Bob Ewell, father of the plaintiff.

Students would do well to watch and study the film as a work of art. An effective way for teachers to start this process is the following:

  • Watch the entire film all the way through, either as a class or as an individual assignment.

  • Then, explore sections of the film in great detail by going scene by scene and, within some scenes, frame by frame.

  • At each strategic juncture, ask questions that lead the students into the details of the scene or frame.

One could also explore the other roles, camera angles and light, the use of music, the pacing of the film and other elements of arrangement. For this exercise, however, let’s just focus on Duvall’s acting.

In developing a strategy for leading the discussion, start with a few backdrop questions on what we know of Boo, how he is connected to the Finch children, and what connections he has to the townspeople involved in the legal case. Then, move on to questions of detail regarding Duvall’s portrayal of Boo in the scene that takes place in Jem’s room.

  1. Before we actually see Boo Radley, what do we know about him? Who conveys that information in the film? What is the nature of the information: Straight reportage? Hearsay? Gossip? What is his overall reputation in Maycomb?

  2. Again, before Boo and the children are actually in a room together, what encounters do they have with each other? What do the children think of him? What do we think of him?

  3. Now, let’s look at the short scene in which we see Boo. How is our attention initially turned to him? What can we see of him behind the door? How is he standing? Where is he looking? What is the effect of the shadow that mostly drapes his figure?

  4. What is Boo’s response when the door is moved, when he is no longer in the shadow but now revealed in the light? Describe his face and other physical traits. What about him makes it believable that he rescued the children? What about him makes it believable that, while he lives next door, the children have not actually seen him?

  5. What effect does Scout have on Boo in this scene? What evidence is there of that effect? Why does he focus his gaze on her? What is his expression before she smiles at him? What changes when she smiles at him? Look closely at his upper body and face. Be precise.

  6. How does Scout get Boo to approach the sleeping Jem? What do we see in Boo as he spends a moment by Jem’s side?

Possible answers to the six questions:

Perhaps the first thing that strikes us about Duvall’s performance is that his Boo Radley says nothing—not a single word. Further still, his face is on the screen for only a few minutes. Yet, his presence looms over much of the story: as legend—the allegedly dangerous simpleton hidden away in the Radley home; as mystery—the invisible friend who leaves gifts for the children in the small hollow of the great tree between their adjacent properties; and as a surprising agent of justice—Scout and Jem’s stealthy but fatal defender against the vicious Bob Ewell.

When we do finally see Boo—or “Mr. Arthur Radley,” as Atticus formally introduces him  to Scout—he is hiding in the shadows behind a door in the room where the injured Jem sleeps. Scout, Atticus, and the sheriff are all present. The door is pulled away so that everyone sees Boo in full light. He frantically shifts to his right. His movement away from the others only ends when the wall cuts off his retreat. His face is haunted, his eyes dark and full of fear, his body taut, trembling, and cornered. Though afraid, there is a physicality about Boo, which makes it believable that he got the better of the alcoholic Ewell. The fear and distance in his pale face make it easier to imagine his isolated life next door in the recesses of the Radley house.

Just as believable is Boo’s change that occurs over the next twenty seconds of film: Under the searching, endearing gaze of young Scout, he returns the focus and looks only at her. At first he seems disconcerted that she does not recognize him. As he continues to look, there is just the slightest hint of softening around his mouth and eyes. Then it does dawn on her who he is, and she gently smiles. His countenance eases to a subtle but real tenderness. First, his left shoulder relaxes. Scout speaks two little words: “Hey, Boo.” Then, his head tilts back, his brow lifts ever so slightly. The softest smile forms on his face. He blinks lightly, slowly.

After answering those six questions, the students will have worked over the beautiful, subtle details of Duvall’s acting. After that, it would be rewarding to explore the next set of frames—the ones where Scout takes Boo’s hand and leads him to Jem’s side: “You can pet him, Mr. Arthur. He’s asleep,” she reassures him. “You couldn’t if he was awake, though, he wouldn’t let you.” As Boo gently touches the head of the boy whose life he saved, the world is set right for a moment. No words. Just a touch and a look, each expressing an utterly convincing love that quietly transcends the hatred and violence that preceded this scene. As Scout indicates, this is a moment that is likely not to occur again. Yet, we sense that it is more than an unrepeatable moment. We glimpse here the completion of something precious and sacred. Whatever the characters in the scene and we ourselves once thought of Boo Radley, his place has been transformed, his humanity made more real. Robert Duvall does that for Boo, and he does that for the rest of us.


Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as Cana Academy’s president. Look for forthcoming articles on Robert Duvall’s performances in Tomorrow (1972) and Tender Mercies (1983). This current post appears in the June issue of ToolKit, Cana Academy’s monthly digital magazine for humanities teachers, available at all membership levels for free.

The banner image is courtesy of Flickr user classic_film and is used under CC BY-NC 2.0.