Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movies: To Kill A Mockingbird

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham
as his daughter, Scout, in To Kill A Mockingbird.
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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom
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To Kill A Mockingbird

Released in 1962 and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch , To Kill A Mockingbird was an immediate hit. Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and only Lawrence of Arabia could deny this movie the honor of Best Picture. More than 40 years later, it is still among the most popular and acclaimed movies of all time. Recently the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as the greatest film hero in the history of movies.

The movie was based on the novel by Harper Lee, also both an immediate and lasting success. She wedded childhood memories with a courtroom drama that struck a chord as the Civil Rights era was reaching its fruition. For example:

In the town of Monroeville, Alabama, a rich man’s son was caught joyriding in a stolen car. His father persuaded the sheriff not to arrest the boy, but to leave the punishment up to him. He imposed three years of house arrest, but it turned into a life sentence when even after that time the young man found he could no longer face leaving the confines of his house, except at night. He became an object of mystery and fear in the neighborhood. Or so the local story goes.

This was Nelle Harper Lee’s hometown in the 1930s. She left it for college, then law school in her father’s footsteps, though she stopped just shy of completing her degree. Instead she went to New York, where she worked as an airline reservations clerk and accompanied her childhood friend, Truman Capote, as he researched his book about two murderers in Kansas, In Cold Blood. (Catherine Keener plays her in the film Capote, and looks very much like her 1960s photos.)

[text continues after photos]

Gregory Peck with Harper Lee as the movie was shooting.
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Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine
Keener as Harper Lee in Capote (2005).
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She began writing in earnest in the mid 50s, returning frequently to Alabama to nurse her ailing father. One Christmas in Manhattan, a songwriter friend and his wife gave her a unique gift—a year’s income, to support her writing. (The songwriter was Michael Brown, who made his reputation and probably his fortune producing industrial musicals for clients like DuPont and Woolworth.)

She used it to write the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, and remains among the top 10 best selling novels from then until now. It is one of the five most assigned novels in American schools, and American librarians recently voted it the best novel of the twentieth century.

Harper Lee transformed memories of her childhood: her father was the inspiration for Atticus Finch, Truman Capote became Dill, and that ghostly young man was the probable prototype for Boo Radley. (That story is not well known, by the way. I found it in an academic thesis online by the director of a University of Alabama production of the play, who visited Monroeville.)

To refresh your memory of the story: Atticus Finch is the widowed father of the tomboy Scout (Harper Lee’s self-portrait) and Jem (Scout’s older brother). Atticus is a lawyer appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. This event is based partly on a case of her father’s, and partly on the infamous Scottsboro Trials of young black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman, also in the 1930s, when Harper Lee was about the same age as her fictional stand-in, Jean-Louise, known as Scout.

Boo Radley's sculptures of Scout and Jem.
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Mary Badham with Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.
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Lee’s first submitted version of the work was reportedly more of a series of linked stories (ironically, a very hot form in fiction at the present moment.) But her publisher insisted on a more unified novel.

Lee was able to achieve this partly by following in linear time the education of the young girl, Scout and her brother, Jem, and partly by weaving a few important themes throughout the book. The first was about innocence, both of children and of “the mockingbird”—the innocent who only sings and does no one any harm—which applies to both Tom Robinson, the accused black man Atticus defends, and to Boo Radley, the neighbor who lives in darkness, the stranger in their midst who receives their projections of violence, and is therefore a source of fear.

He is different (and a kind of artist, who creates sculptures and leaves them for the children to find, along with talismans of his own “normal” childhood). He is literally unseen, and so represents the aspects of people we are blind to, because of our preconceptions. This obviously applies to race, and there is also a strong theme of class in the novel—which cuts both ways. (It can be argued that Atticus has his own class prejudices.)

The second theme, which follows from the first and is explicitly stated as a lesson to the novel’s children, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other’s perspective (as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end), by metaphorically living in someone else’s skin, walking in their shoes. This is a lesson about life and specifically about race. It remains the most crucial lesson in our public as well as private lives, and so this too accounts for this novel’s standing.

It is reinforced in other ways throughout the novel, notably by the brief story of Mrs. Dubose, a surly neighbor who insults everyone, including Scout and Jem, and says harsh things about Atticus. When Jem loses his temper and destroys her garden flowers, Atticus sends him to Mrs. Dubose to apologize and make restitution. Mr. D. requires him to read aloud to her everyday. When she dies, they learn that she was always in pain and addicted to morphine, which accounted for her harsh behavior. She decided she would die free of her addiction, and Jem reading to her was a way for her to bear the pain. It’s another example of assumptions and projections contradicted by understanding, as well as a story of redemption and the power of simple acts to do good.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck reviewing the script.
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As the Civil Rights Movement came to fruition in the early 1960s, the book struck a chord. So did the equally classic 1962 movie version.

The movie has quite a pedigree behind the camera. Alan Pakula produced it (today perhaps even more renowned as a director), Robert Mulligan directed, Elmer Bernstein wrote the musical score, and the screenplay was written by Horton Foote, the Texan playwright, who had written extensively for television drama and later wrote many acclaimed movie scripts, including Tender Mercies for Robert Duvall.

Harper Lee was a consultant on the movie and present for the filming (mostly on a backlot in California.) She and other participants formed lifelong friendships on that set. She and Gregory Peck in particular remained close. As she watched the first scene being shot she was seen to shed a few tears: he reminded her so much of her father.

Young Mary Badham, who played the six year old “Scout,” also kept in touch with Peck for the rest of his life. She felt close to him immediately on the set, and between takes would be seen hanging onto him in his lap. She called him “Atticus” ever after.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck between takes.
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evoking small town and rural childhood
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Mary Badham in a key scene with Gregory Peck.
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A wide search for children to play Scout and her brother Jem was conducted in various southern cities, but the actors selected, Badham and Philip Alford as Jem, lived within a couple of blocks of each other in Birmingham, though they’d never met.

Mary Badham was herself a “tomboy,” as was her character, and the girl that Scout was based on—Harper Lee. She acted for several more years, and was in one more notable movie (This Property is Condemned, based on a Tennessee Williams play, written by Francis Ford Copolla and starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood.) She gave up acting by the late 60s but has returned to it in recent years.

While Harper Lee is reclusive, living at least part of the time back in Monroeville, it is Mary Badham who represents this movie when it is honored and shown at festivals.

The movie streamlines the story of the novel by collapsing the events into a single year. It very carefully tells the story from the children’s point of view, even in shot selection. Though the subplot of Mrs. Dubose (played by the accomplished actor, Ruth White) was shot, director Mulligan felt it sidetracked the momentum of the film and most of the scenes were cut. It’s said her performance was brilliant.

There are so many indelible images, performances and moments in this movie. One little noted performance by William Windom for example, as the prosecutor in the courtroom scene. He brought just the right amount of cool contempt for a black defendant, and confidence that he would be able to trip him up. And he was quick to pounce on Robinson's remarks that he felt sorry for the white woman. (Today's audiences may not automatically understand what a violation this is. No matter how far down the class continuum a white person is, it was the iron law of the racist South that the poorest white was still better than any black person. For a black person to "feel sorry" for a white was to assert equality if not superiority, and that was unforgivable.)

Even the way Windom sat during Gregory Peck's summation, with his leg dangling, expressed the Good Old Boy arrogance that assumed the verdict, even when in terms of facts he had no case.

But we return to Mary Badham's remarkable presence and performance, especially in a scene of Peck as Attticus putting Scout to bed and talking of her mother (added to the film and not a scene in the book), and then of course in one of the most moving scenes in any film—when she sees Robert Duvall behind the door, and recognizes him, and with a luminous smile says, “Hey, Boo.” Her face in this film is absolutely unique.

Mary Badham as Scout.
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Atticus and children face a lynch mob.
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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch: early 60s hero of rectitude
and reason.
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And of course, Gregory Peck. In the late 50s and early to mid 60s, he was probably the film actor I looked to most as an adult role model. (Even if I had to learn that his thoughtful, brooding silences played better in close-ups on film than in real life.) What lasts about role models is what they bring out in you that was in you already, and now you have some means to express it, and above all, permission to express it.

I recall him especially in a couple of 1959 releases, the classic On the Beach, and the justifiably forgotten Beloved Infidel, in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Sorry, but I really liked him in that. He also played several Hemingway stand-ins in other films.) Later in Captain Newman, M.D., and a romantic caper film, Arabesque, and when I caught up to earlier films, especially Captain Horatio Hornblower and Roman Holiday.

As a film actor, Peck was able to project a great deal by not doing very much, by nuance, gesture, tone and simply by presence. The makers of this film understood and complemented this particular power. They allowed him to react without speaking; in a key scene, in which he learns that his client is dead and he must tell others of this, we see him mostly from the back.

But in that amazing year of 1962—JFK in the White House, John Glenn in orbit, James Meredith enters Old Miss, Silent Spring, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bob Dylan and folk music, and two crusading court room dramas on TV (The Defenders, and The Law and Mr. Jones) –Gregory Peck was clearly the soul of To Kill A Mockingbird. There was a Kennedyesque quality about him—if he’d been younger, he probably would have played JFK as the World War II hero who rescued his crew in the movie made about the incident, PT-109.

He could be wonderfully funny, but in dramatic roles he often brought a sense of rectitude, and the full weight of that accompanied him in this role. I’m sure that when as a teenager I joined the now famous but then somewhat daring (Civil Rights) March on Washington the next year, I carried a bit of Peck as Atticus Finch with me.

Monday, May 28, 2007


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Mother Earth

"Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world."

So wrote Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring in 1962. She wrote about the unthinking threats to nature and to our own lives from the indiscriminate and large-scale pollutions humanity was imposing on the stuff of life--the air, water and earth, the plants and animals and the cells of our own bodies.

She wrote:"For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death."

Though her book helped lead to banning DDT and some other chemicals, and though she is justifiably known as the mother of the environmental movement, her clarion call still needs to be heard. Chemicals in vast numbers and combinations continue to enter our lives, these days with little attention or question. My generation was the first to be subjected to many of these chemicals, and early evidence suggests we may be paying the price in more sickness and earlier death as we enter our last decades.

But her words ring true especially for the future. The climate crisis caused by fossil fuel pollution is another extension of the basic problem she identified. Rachel Carson died of cancer just a few years after this book was published. Her 100th birthday was celebrated Sunday (May 27), in (among other places) Pittsburgh, which claims her as a native, and where she attended college. These two quotations from her book are also, appropriately, from a fine article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette by Scott Shalaway that is well worth reading for a summary of her legacy.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Classic Stuff

Spring into summer and bike riding time. In the 1950s'
childhood of early baby boomers, this was the ride you
wanted: a two-tone Schwinn. Outfit it with mirrors,
streamers on the handlebars, maybe saddlebags on the
back, and once in awhile a balloon across the spokes to
simulate a motorcycle sound, and you're ready to cruise.
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