Monday, July 5, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: An American Treasure

Did you have a nice Fourth yesterday?  I hope so cause today I'm still talking about some great American treasures.  TCM is celebrating one this July as their Star of the Month - Gregory Peck.  And this July 11th is the 50th anniversary of the other - Harper Lee's classic novel.  And when the two combined, we got one of the greatest American films ever made.  We got the film "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I'm sure you already know the story.  If you have been in grade school since the novel's release, then it's a given.  It's the coming-of-age story of Scout, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town in the 1930s.  As the summers and falls pass, she begins to see the true harshness that can be found in the world, yet all the time she finds protection in the arms of her loving father Atticus.  Universal Pictures released the film adaptation of Lee's classic book in 1962.  The first film by the new production team Pakula-Mulligan, it stars Peck in the role of Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.  It was an instant success, and won three out of its eight Oscar nominations, the biggest being Peck's win for Best Actor.

Peck had not read the book yet when he was offered the role, so before agreeing, he decided he should give it a try.  He ended up reading it in one sitting, and then called up producer Alan J. Pakula immediately to accept the role.  It was the perfect fit for him, as many have attested to since.  As Pakula once recalled, "The fit was among the most natural things about a most natural film. I must say the man and the character he played were not unalike."  Harper Lee herself visited the set while filming a scene where Atticus arrives home and his children Jem and Scout run up to meet him.  After the scene, Lee was in tears because Peck reminded her of her father exactly, on whom the character of Atticus was based.  Peck got to meet Amasa Lee, Harper's father, before filming began.  However, before the picture's release, Amasa passed away.  So Harper gave her father's pocket watch to Peck as a thank you for bringing Atticus to life so well.  Peck wore the watch the night he won his Oscar.

Lee and Peck remained close friends for the rest of his life.  (His grandson is named Harper in her honor.)  Peck remained close to many people in this production though, possibly because he felt it was his best experience.  He stayed in touch with Mary Badham, always calling her Scout.  And at Peck's funeral in 2003, Brock Peters who played Tom Robinson, the black man Atticus defends, spoke at his eulogy, "To my friend Gregory Peck, to my friend Atticus Finch, vaya con Dios."

I remember the first time I saw this film.  It was in grade school, after reading the book.  I was already a fan of Gregory Peck's but this solidified it for me.  I could see the truth in his eyes.  The loving father was there in every step.  I think it was the first time I ever really notice how a good actor can truly embody a character fully.  It's the same strength I saw in Peck in "Cape Fear" (one of the few scary films I like), that true sense of love and protection for children that are not his own.  This film made me love acting.

As for the children in "To Kill a Mockingbird," it was the first film for both Badham and Phillip Alford.  Alford didn't even want to go audition for the part, but when his mother told him that he would miss half a day of school to do it, he agreed.  And of course, like filming with most children, it was a grueling process sometimes.  During one scene where the Finch family is eating breakfast, little Badham was having trouble and kept messing up on every take.  Alford got so frustrated with her that he decided to get back at her in another scene.  When Jem rolls Scout down the street in an old tire, Alford purposely rolled Badham toward an equipment truck instead.  Badham earned an Oscar nomination for her role, yet lost out to another young actress, Patty Duke for "The Miracle Worker."

And, of course, let us not forget the other film debut in the bunch - Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.  "Mockingbird" screenwriter Horton Foote had recommended Duvall to Pakula himself.  Duvall had starred in a production of Foote's play "The Midnight Caller" in New York in 1957.  To prepare for this role, Duvall stayed out of the sun six weeks and bleached his hair. 

So celebrate some great American treasures this week with Gregory Peck as Atticus (the greatest hero of American cinema according to AFI) and "To Kill a Mockingbird".  You can watch it tonight on TCM at 10pm EST.  Have a wonderful week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit:  The famous courthouse set in "Mockingbird" was modeled exactly after the courthouse in Lee's hometown of Monroeville.  It is now a museum dedicated to the book, film and Lee.  You can also see a great play adaptation of "Mockingbird" there, performed in the courthouse and on the surrounding grounds by the townsfolk.)

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