Saturday, April 19, 2014

To Kill A Mockingbird


I spent today in my home dance studio, carefully working my way through a series of pliers and tap combinations in order to get my famous legs back into full fighting trim for my upcoming projects. It was grueling work; thank heavens I had a full panoply of Lesterene brand vitamin supplements available to keep my energy up. The years do take their toll on the knees but my new glucosamine/chondroitin tablets, especially formulated to rejuvenate knee cartilage, kept me going with only an occasional twinge. We're calling them Knee-Dulls and have this brilliant new haystack billboard that will soon be appearing at an Interstate off ramp near you. It'll be bigger than 'got milk?' 

A photographer is coming this afternoon to do a photo shoot for the prospective magazine cover. I thought perhaps we'd do it on the terrace. I've just had it rebuilt with a new glitter terrazzo and a triple size white marble replica of 'The Dying Gaul' on an onyx plinth. If I wear one of my better Ungaro florals, it should make for an unforgettable image. Madame Rose, my publicist, had some disappointing news. Vanity Fair is going with Kobe Bryant but she has a good lead on Guns and Ammo. I'll have to see if that AK-47 is still in the hall closet for use as a prop. Normally, I'm a pacifist by nature but desperate times call for desperate measures. 

My studio kids group lost one of our most treasured members the other day when Gregory Peck passed away. In silent tribute, and before the photographers invade, I decided to retire to the home theater for a viewing of his greatest role, Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. Gregory left happy. The American Film Institute voted this portrayal the greatest example of film heroism ever committed to celluloid just days before he died. The film, faithfully adapted from Harper Lee's modern classic novel of the same name by screenwriter Horton Foote, director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula, remains a brilliant peek into childhood and the vanished world of the rural south. 

To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of the Finch family of Maycomb, Alabama - a small county seat town in the south of the state (based on the real community of Monroeville where novelist Lee grew up during the 30s). Father Atticus (Gregory Peck) is a local lawyer, a widower with two young children, Jem (Philip Alford) and Jean Louise or Scout (Mary Badham) whose memoir this is. The film starts as a southern idyll of long hot summer days and childish pastimes where Jem and Scout, along with their sometime neighbor Dill (John Menga, Connie Steven's brother) roll in tires, sass their housekeeper (Estelle Evans, Esther Rolle's sister) and pester the neighborhood recluse, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). 

They become aware that something is not right in town and that the adult world is fracturing. A young white girl, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), from the wrong side of the tracks has accused a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), of raping her. It soon becomes obvious that no such crime has occurred but, in rural Alabama of the 30s, just the accusation is enough to make it so and no white jury will take the word of a black man over that of a white. Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom and does so brilliantly even though he knows Tom is doomed under the moral code of that place and time. While Atticus may be unable to save Tom, his expose of the hypocrisy of the town and its belief system is enough to endanger his family, until an unlikely savior steps in. 

Harper Lee's novel was an instant success on its publication in the early 1960s, winning the Pulitzer Prize and other awards. It remains in print and a staple of high school and college modern American literature with its evocative descriptions, compelling characters, and subtle examination of American attitudes towards class and race. Lee never published again, and is notoriously reclusive, refusing interviews and public appearances. The book is based on her family and her experiences growing up in a small southern town and many of her characters have real life counterparts. Dill, the neighbor boy, for instance, is based on author Truman Capote who was her childhood and lifelong friend. Some have suggested that Capote actually wrote the novel for her but that's unlikely, any more than she wrote In Cold Blood on which she worked with Capote as a research assistant. 

In order to fit the novel into the two hour requirements of feature film, screenwriter Horton Foote, dean of Southern Playwrights, had to trim and shape the material, discarding some supporting characters and limiting the role of others. Superb actors like Rosemary Murphy (Miss Maudie Atkinson) and Ruth White (Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose) were given little more than cameos. He chose to focus primarily on the heart of the novel, the rape trial where the children learn in the starkest possible terms that the world is inherently unfair. 

The film comes together with the perfect casting of Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch. His basso voice, his good looks, and his warm sense of compassion, both for his family and for his town, come through in spades. His nobility, however, is matched by a deep humanity which keep Atticus from being self righteous or an insufferable prig. It's a delicate balancing act and Peck handles it with gusto, winning a well deserved Oscar for best actor. He has many wonderful moments, but none better than his wordless walk down the aisle of the courthouse after losing the case he knew he could not win, no matter the truth. That, plus the silent acknowledgement of the African American population of the town in the courthouse balcony, remains one of the most unforgettable minutes in American cinema. 

The children are fine in their parts. Mary Badham (sister of director John Badham) as Scout is all elbows, knees and black bangs. There's an artlessness to her performance that keeps things real and centered, especially when she rambles on and on to a crowd of men, not realizing she's defusing a lynch mob. Philip Alford, as her brother, is also nearly as good. John Menga, as Dill, is a little more cloying. Fortunately, he doesn't have nearly as much screen time and disappears about two thirds of the way through. The one other member of the supporting cast who is unforgettable is the young Robert Duvall. In his first film role, his brief appearance at the end becomes the catalyst for everything that has come before and his ability to communicate so much with so little is masterful. 

The film holds up well forty years later. The DVD release has a pristine print of this black and white classic. (Some films should be made in black and white - this is one of them.) There is also a documentary on the film with many of the original cast members and key creative people reflecting back on the film and social attitudes towards race in the early 60s. This is one not to be missed. 

Box of treasures. Lost pants. Mule carts. Symbolic mad dog. Country sheriff. Eerie old house. Colored balcony. Face spitting. Ham performance.

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