Harper Lee — February 19, 2016

Harper Lee, Gregory Peck and “To Kill a Mockingbird”

A – The Author

Harper Lee, the distinguished novelist who only wrote two novels, died at age 89, early Friday, February 19, 2016, in Monroeville, AL, her birth place.

Her first semi-autobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 and became an instant hit. It rose to the top of the bestseller lists and remained there for 88 weeks. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and, by the late ‘70s, had sold almost ten million copies (as of the present day, it has reached the heights of roughly forty million copies worldwide). To Kill a Mockingbird became a must-read book in secondary school curriculums and the Library journal declared it the best novel of the 20th century. It is the most taught fiction book written by an American and its timeless humanist theme of social justice continues to strike a chord that cuts across age, race and class.

To Kill a Mockingbird, with its honest look at racial inequality, race relations, family turmoil, class war and justice, particularly in the Deep South when African Americans were still being denied even the most basic of civil rights, is among those works of art that can’t help but leave a lasting impression on readers of all ages, and remains one of the most important books published during the rise of the civil rights movement.

The book is set in 1932 during the Great Depression, and is told through the eyes of six-year-old Scout Finch (a clear alter ego for Lee) in one of the most memorable depictions of a child in contemporary American literature. The title of the book is derived from an incident in the novel, in which her father, Atticus, gives an air rifle to Scout and her brother with the condition that they can shoot at tin cans but never at a mockingbird. The reason for this is later explained to Scout by the widow who lives across the street; it is a sin to kill mockingbirds because they harm no one and only give the world beautiful music through their songs.

Atticus Finch, based on Lee’s father, with whom he shared both profession and character, is a white, liberal small town southern lawyer, a man of utter moral integrity, who is given the task of defending a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Ms. Lee studied law at the University of Alabama, but, unlike her father, decided to become a writer. She was a very private person and avoided anything that would put her in the public eye. She always steadfastly refused to talk about her own life and work, and even left a request that her eulogy focus on her art alone, not her life. Ms. Lee never married and had no children.

Her second book, Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015. The book has garnered mixed reviews, particularly in regard to its depiction of the widely beloved character of Atticus, but has sold two million copies and become a bestseller in America, just like its predecessor (although its ultimate fate has yet to be decided).

B-The Film

Universal Studios bought the rights to the book, and the role of Atticus Finch was offered to Rock Hudson. That production was subsequently delayed and the whole thing was temporarily shelved. Producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan, having just worked together successfully on Fear Strikes Out (1957) for Paramount, were looking for another interesting vehicle. The dormant project got their attention. They dropped Hudson and sent a copy of the novel to Gregory Peck, who read it and accepted the leading role of Atticus.

Becoming the embodiment of Atticus Finch, a devoted father to his two motherless children, Jem and Scout, Peck turned in a performance that was perfect and astonishing. Finch was a man who represented honor, compassion, integrity and decency, qualities that the real Gregory Peck always displayed as well.

Lee refused to write the script, so the famous southern writer Horton Foote was brought in to do the adaptation, a task he accomplished masterfully and that eventually brought him an Oscar. Robert Mulligan directed the film with a sure hand and, contrary to the book, focused more on the trial of Tom Robinson and less on the day to day life of the small town.

Universal helped recreate the atmosphere of the novel through authentic sets on their lot showing the houses, the neighborhood, and the interior courtroom of the Monroe County Courthouse in Monroeville, AL. Production designers traveled to Monroeville, taking photographs and measurements prior to shooting in order to recreate the whole set. They too would earn an Oscar, for Art Direction/Set Decoration.

The film opened on December 25, 1962 and received mostly good reviews. The budget was two million, and the film would go on to make that back ten times over. To Kill a Mockingbird is among those rare films that managed to please the author of the source material and fans of the book as well. Lee was very happy with the results and particularly with Gregory Peck’s extraordinary performance. She was so impressed with Peck, in fact, that she would subsequently turn down all offers in later years for any remake, television or stage production, believing the character would never be done better. Ms. Lee also made a gift of good luck and appreciation to Mr. Peck of her father’s gold pocket watch, which he had carried to court for forty years.

To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for 8 Academy awards but only won three. After having been nominated for the top acting prize a previous four times, in 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1949, Gregory Peck finally received the prestigious golden statue on April 8, 1963 for his work as Atticus Finch. Fittingly, when he went onstage to accept his award, he had Lee’s father’s gold watch in his pocket.

C-The Actor: Meeting Gregory Peck (1916-2003)

Gregory Peck, one of the most popular film stars from the 1940s to 1960s, came to Tehran to participate in the Second Tehran International Film Festival in 1974.
He had just starred in Billy Two Hats (directed by Ted Kotcheff), a film that was shown out of competition. Mr. Peck acted in more than fifty films during a career that spanned over half century.

He was a liberal and a popular movie hero who embodied American decency, skillfully projecting bravery and vulnerability. It is interesting to note that, when his decency and integrity vanished, as demanded by his role in Duel in the Sun (1946), the film ended up failing at the box office. His well-known character was also a factor in his public life. Mr. Peck was prominent among Hollywood figures backing liberal political causes, including advocating for gun control and against the Vietnam War.

Mr. Peck had a very tight schedule during his short stay in Tehran, but I found an opportunity to conduct a short interview with him. One of the questions that I remember that is appropriate for this piece is that I asked him what an actor’s primary obligation was, to which he replied, “An actor must perform with charm and professionalism.” We continued to talk, touching on Hitchcock and other great directors with whom he had worked, until I finally asked him, “What was the key to your performance in To Kill a Mockingbird, so powerful and magnificent that you earned an Oscar for it?” He paused for a moment, and looked at me directly and said, “I played myself.”

— Bahman Maghsoudlou
New York, March 21, 2016

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