Thursday, May 31, 2007

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.

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