‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Movie for the Ages from Book for All Time
Like a lot of people, To Kill a Mockingbird is one one of my favorite books and movies. Has there ever been a more truthful evocation of childhood and the South? When Bruce Crawford organized a revival screening of the film a couple years ago I leapt at the chance to write about it and the following article is the result. It was originally published in the City Weekly. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first printing of the masterpiece novel by Harper Lee. The film is fast creeping up on its own 50th anniversary. The book to film adaptation is arguably the best screen treatment of a great novel in cinema history. That transition from one medium to another is often not a happy or satisfying one. Owing to my quite foggy memory of childhood things, I must admit that I cannot be entirely certain I have read Lee’s novel, but then again it was already standard fare in schools and so my unreliable recollection that I did read it in high school is probably accurate. I really should get a copy of the book, sit down with it, and indulge in that precisely drawn world of Lee’s. I am sure I will be as carried away by it now as I still I am by the film, which I have seen in its entirety a few dozen times, never tiring of it, always moved by it, and whenever I find it playing on TV I cannot help but watch awhile. It is that mesmerizing to me. And I know I am hardly alone in its effect.
For the article I got the chance to interview Mary Badham, who plays Scout in the film. At the end of my article’s posting, you’ll find a Q & A I did with her. Around this same time I also had the opportunity to interview Robert Duvall, who so memorably plays Boo Radley. However, I spoke to Duvall for an entirely different project, and I never brought up Mockingbird with him, although I wish I did.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Movie for the Ages from Book for All Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the City Weekly
Great movies are rarely made from great books. If you buy that conventional wisdom than an exception is the 1962 movie masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel became an award-winning film acclaimed for how faithfully and lovingly it brought her work to the screen. Lee publicly praised the adaptation.
Gregory Peck, with whom Lee maintained a friendship. won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his starring turn as idealistic small town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch. Atticus is a widower with two precocious children — Scout and Jem. Atticus was based in part on Lee’s own father, an attorney and newspaper editor. Peck’s understated performance forever fixed the Mount Rushmoresque actor as the epitome of high character and strong conviction in movie fans’ minds.
Omaha impresario and film historian Bruce Crawford will celebrate Mockingbird on Friday, Nov. 14 at the Joslyn Art Museum with a 7 p.m. screening and an appearance by Mary Badham, the then-child actress who played Scout. She’s the rambunctious young tomboy through whose eyes and words the story unfolds. Actress Kim Stanley provided the voice of the adult Scout, who narrates the tale with ironic, bemused detachment.
Badham earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in her film debut yet largely retired from screen acting after only two more roles. She remained close to Peck until his death a few years ago. The Richmond, Vir. area resident often travels to Mockingbird revivals. There’s always a big crowd. The universal appeal, Crawford said, lies in the pic tapping childhood feelings we all identify with.
“The crossover appeal of this film is unlike that of but a very few pictures,” he said. That pull can be attributed in part to the book, which, Crawford said, “has an absolutely enormous following in literary circles. It’s like required reading in public schools across the United States. Then, on top of that, the film was an instant classic when it came out and has done nothing but even grow larger in status the last 46 years. It’s become one of the most beloved films of all time.”
American Film Institute pollsconsistently rank Mockingbird as a stand-the-test-of- time classic. Crawford said seldom does an enormously popular book turn into an equally popular film. “It’s like Gone with the Wind in that,” he added.
Lee’s elegiac narrative, set in the 1930s Alabama she grew up in, has a kind of nostalgic, fairy tale quality the film enhances at every turn. It starts with the memorable opening credit sequence. An overhead camera peers with warm curiosity at a young girl sorting through an assortment of trinkets spilled from a cigar box, each an artifact of childhood discovery and reverie. As she hums, she draws with a crayon on paper. Soon, the film’s title is revealed.
The camera, now in closeup, pans from one small object to another, all in harmony with the wistful, lyrical music score. It makes an idyllic scene of childhood bliss. The girl then draws a crude mockingbird on paper and without warning rips it apart, presaging the abrupt, ugly turn of events to envelop the children in the story. It’s a warning that tranquil beauty can be stolen, violated, interrupted.
Dream-like imagery and music emphasize this is the remembered past of a woman seeing these events through the prism of impressionable, preadolescent memories. The film captures the sense of wonder and danger children’s imaginations find in the most ordinary things — the creak and clang of an old clapboard house in the wind, shadows lurking in the twilight, a tree mysteriously adorned with gifts.
Like another great movie from that era, The Night of the Hunter, Mockingbird gives heightened, elemental expression to the world of children in peril. The by-turns chiaroscuro, melancholy, sublime, ethereal landscape reflects Scout’s deepest feelings-longings. It is naturalism and expressionism raised to high art.
The film tenderly, authentically presents the relationship between Scout and her older brother Jem, her champion, and the bond they share with their father. The motherless children are raised by Atticus the best he knows how, with help from housekeeper Calpurnia and nearby matron Miss Maudie. A sense of loss and loneliness but moreover, love, infuses the household.
A mythic, largely unseen presence is Boo Radley, a recluse the kids fear, yet feel connected to. He leaves tokens for them in the knot of a tree and performs other small kindnesses they misinterpret as menace. In the naivete and cruelty of youth, Scout and Jem make him the embodiment of the bogeyman.
The figure looming largest in the children’s lives is Atticus, a seemingly meek, ineffectual man whose gentle, principled virtues Scout and Jem begin to admire. His unpopular stand against injustice and bigotry quells, at least for a time, violence. His strength and resolve impress even his boy and girl.
Trouble brews when Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in an era of lynchings. The case makes the family targets. The children witness Atticus’s noble if futile defense and come to appreciate his goodness and the esteem in which he’s held. In their/our eyes he’s a hero.
In his summation Atticus appeals to the all-male, all-white jury: “Now gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality. Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.”
The film’s theme of compassion is expressed in some moving moments. Atticus says to Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… ’till you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
When a school chum Scout’s invited for dinner drenches his meal in syrup, her mocking comments embarrass him, prompting Calpurnia to scold her for being rude. The lesson: respect people’s differences.
Before Atticus will even consider getting a rifle for Jem he relates a story his own father told him about never killing a mockingbird. It’s a father instructing his son to never harm or injure a living thing, especially those that are innocent and give beauty. In the context of the plot, the children, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are the symbolic mockingbirds. Atticus delivers this lesson to his son:
“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun…He said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit ‘em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”
Among many famous scenes, Scout’s innocence and decency shame grown men bent on malice to heed their better natures. In another, Atticus tells Jem he can’t protect him from every ugly thing. When evil does catch up to the children their savior is an unlikely friend, someone who’s been watching over them all along, like a guardian angel. Once safely returned to the bosom of home and family, they find refuge again in their quiet, unassuming hero, who comforts and reassures them.
Only the most sensitive treatment could capture the rich, delicate rhythms and potent themes of Lee’s novel and this film succeeds by striking a well-modulated balance between bittersweet sentimentality and searing psychological drama.
Although the book was a smash, it took courage byUniversal to greenlight the project developed by producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan. Creative partners in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Pakula and Mulligan had made Fear Strikes Out but the young filmmakers were still far from being a power duo. After Fear Mulligan helmed a few more studio hits without Pakula but nothing that suggested the depth Mockingbird would demand. His less than inspiring work might have given any studio pause in taking on the book, whose powerful indictment of prejudice and impassioned call for tolerance came at a time of racial tension. Yes, the civil rights movement was in full flower but so was resistance to it in many quarters.
Efforts to ban the book from schools — on the grounds its portrayal of racism and rape are harmful — have cropped up periodically during its lifetime.
The socially conscious filmmakers helped their cause by signing Peck, who was made to play Atticus Finch, and by enlisting Horton Foote, a playwright from the Tennesse Williams school of Southern Gothic drama, who was made to adapt Lee’s book. Foote’s Oscar-winning script is not only true to Lee’s work but elevates it to cinematic poetry with the aid of Mulligan’s insightful direction, Pakula’s sensitive input, Russell Harlan’s moody photography, Elmer Bernstein’s poignant score and Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen’s evocative, Oscar-winning art direction.
Pakula-Mulligan went on to make four more pictures together, including Love with the Proper Stranger and Baby, the Rain Must Fall with Steve McQueen and The Stalking Moon with Peck. The two split when Pakula left to pursue his own career as a director. Pakula soon established himself with Klute and All the President’s Men. Mulligan’s career continued in fine form, including his direction of two more coming-of-age classics – Summer of ‘42 and The Man in the Moon.
Mockingbird was Lee’s first and only novel. Not long after completing the book she accompanied childhood chum Truman Capote (the character of Dill in Mockingbird is based on him) to Holcomb, Kan. for his initial research on what would become his nonfiction novel masterwork, In Cold Blood. Lee, mostly retired from public life these days, is said to divide her time between New York and Alabama.
The part of Atticus Finch came to Peck at the height of his middle-aged superstardom. He’d proven himself in every major genre. And while he acted on screen another 30-plus years, the film/role represented the peak of his career. It was the kind of unqualified success that could hardly be repeated, certainly not topped. He didn’t seem to mind, either. He gracefully aged on screen, playing a wide variety of parts. But his definitive interpretation of Atticus Finch would always define him as a man of conscience. It became his signature role.
Peck was among the last of a breed of personalities whose ability to project noble character traits infused their performances. Like Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, John Wayne and Charlton Heston, Peck embodied the stalwart man of integrity.
“Those types of characterizations just don’t really exist anymore. That’s what draws people to these characters and to the performances of these men because their like will never be seen again, and we know it” said Crawford.
Mary Badham then
A Q & A with Mary Badham, the Actress Who Played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird
©by Leo Adam Biga
Actress Mary Badham recently spoke by phone with City Weekly correspondent Leo Adam Biga about her role of a lifetime as Scout in the 1982 film classic To Kill a Mockingbird. She grew up in Birmingham, Ala., near the hometown of Harper Lee, upon whose noted novel the film is based. Badham spoke with Biga from her home near Richmond, Virginia.
LAB: “To Kill a Mockingbird is such a touchstone film for so many folks.”
MB: “Mockingbird is one of the great films I think because it talks about so many things that are still pertinent today. So many of life’s lessons are included in the story of Mockingbird, whether you want to talk about family matters or social issues or racial issues or legal issues, it’s all there. There’s many topics of discussion.”
LAB: “Had you read the book prior to getting cast in the film?”
MB: “No, had not read the book.
LAB: “So was reading it a mandatory part of your preparation?”
MB: “No, not at all. I don’t even know that I got a full script.”
LAB: “When did you first read the book then?”
MB: “Ah, that was not till much later I’m embarrassed to say. Not until after I had my daughter. And how it all started was professor Inge from our local college asked me to come speak to his English lit class. We met for lunch and almost the first words out of his mouth were, ‘So what was your favorite chapter in the book?’ He knew by the look on my face that I hadn’t read the book. He said, ‘Young lady, your first assignment is you go home and read the book before you come to my class.’ In defense of myself, I didn’t want to read the book. Because I had everything I wanted out of the story up there on the screen. You know how sometimes you see a film and then you read the book and it messes up that whole warm and fuzzy feeling you may have had about something? But it was really great for me because it filled in a lot of these gaps I had with the story. It just gave me a much fuller love and appreciation for it. And it’s so beautifully written. It’s just so perfect.
“It’s a little book. It’s a quick one-night read, and a lot of people want to put it down for that, because it’s simple…but to me its one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, and it’s borne out by the way it’s read. It’s the second most-read book next to the Bible. That’s saying something.”
LAB: “I know that you and Peck, whom you always called Atticus, enjoyed a warm relationship that lasted until death. On the shoot did he do things to foster your father-daughter relationship on screen?”
MB: “Oh, absolutely. I’d go over there and play with his kids on the weekends. We would have meals together and do things together. So, yeah, they encouraged that bonding. I had such a strong relationship with my own father, and I missed him dreadfully because Daddy had to stay at home to take care of things… My mom came out. But I missed that male link of family and so Atticus really filled the bill. He was just amazing. What a great father. I mean, he was one of the best I think. Not that he was perfect. But he was so well read and so patient, I think you would have to say. And just full of laughter…
“He and PhillipAlford (Jem) used to play chess together. They had such a beautiful relationship, and that stayed till the very end. They just got along so well together and Phillip would always know how to make him laugh. Phillip’s such an entertainer. He’s got a brilliant, quick sense of humor and Atticus really appreciated that. He just adored Phillip. So we really became a family.
“It was nothing for me to pick up the phone and he’d be on the other end, ‘What ya doin’ kiddo?,’ which was marvelous because I lost my parents so early. My mom died three weeks after I graduated from high school and my died died two years after I got married. And I didn’t have grandparents — they died before I was born. I felt totally cut off. So, you know. Atticus really came through psychologically. He really was my male role model. He and Brock Peters (Tom Robinson).
“It was marvelous because those guys were so intelligent and loving and outgoing, and supportive of anything I wanted to do. And sometimes life was not easy growing up and when you’re worried about what’s going to happen next in life, sometimes just hearing those voices on the other end of the line calling to check on me was
just so uplifting. That was just amazingly supportive”
Mary Badham today
LAB: “I understand you two would visit each other as circumstances allowed.”
MB: “Whenever he’d be nearby or if I was out there or whatever, then we would see other. And usually when you make a film, you know, it’s like, ‘Oh, we gotta get together afterwards’ and stuff, and it never happens. But with this cast and crew we did keep up with each other through the years. Paul Fix (the judge), I stayed really tight with right up until he passed. Collin Wilcox (Mayella Ewell) — we stayed in touch up until recently. I would see William (Windom), who played the prosecuting attorney, at various events and things. He’s gone now. So is Alan Pakula, our producer. Absolutely one of the most loving, dear, intelligent human beings I’ve ever met.”
LAB: “Most everyone’s gone except for you, Phillip, Robert Duvall. Bob Mulligan…”
MB: “To lose these guys so early has just about killed me because I feel like my support pillars are gone. I really relied on them – just knowing they were there and that I could pick up the phone and talk to them or they could call me and check on me. That’s a real shot in the arm in your day.”
LAB: Pakula became a great director in his own right. I’m curious about his and Mulligan’s collaboration. They were quite a team. I assume Pakula was a very hands-on, creative producer who worked in close tandem with Mulligan on the set?”
MB: “I think so.”
LAB: “So how did you come to play Scout in the first place?”
MB: “It happened because my mom had been an actress with the local Town and Gown Theatre (in Birmingham, Ala.) She had done some acting in England. That’s where my mom was from. She was the leading lady for a lot of years in the Town and Gown. So when the movie talent scout issued this cattle call our little theater was on the list. They were looking for children. Jimmy Hatcher, who ran the theater, naturally called my mom and said, ‘Bring her down.’ Then mom had to go to Daddy and get permission and he said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Now, Henry, what are the chances the child’s going to get the part anyway?’ Oh, well…”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Badham’s late brother, John Badham, acted at the Town and Gown. He became a successful film director. Phillip Alford acted in three shows there before cast as Jem. The theater’s where Patricia Neal got her acting start.
LAB: “Lo and behold you did get the part.”
MB: “Daddy was horrified and it was everything Alan Pakula and Buddy Boatwright, the talent scout, could do to try and convince him that they were not going to ruin his daughter.”
LAB: “Everything you’ve said suggests Mockingbird being a very warm set.”
MB: “It was. I remember a lot of laughter, a lot of joking around. I remember five months of having a blast. I didn’t want it to end. I had not had any trouble with my lines until like the last day, and then it was just like, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to say goodbye to all these people.’ I was so upset I could not spit my lines out for anything. My mother finally said, ‘Do you know what the freeway is like at 5 o’clock? These people have got to go home.’ I was like, ‘OK, OK.’ So I got out there and did it. But it broke my heart. I thought I’d never see these people again.”
LAB: You and Phillip were newcomers. Did the crew take a kids-gloves approach?”
MB: “Yes, we had time to get used to the cameras and the crew and the lights and getting set up. They started off very slowly with us. The camera and crew would be across the street and then they’d move up a little closer, and then a little closer still, and then they were right there. Everything was kind of good that way.”
LAB: “How did director Bob Mulligan work with you two?”
MB: “Very gentle, very tender. Instead of standing there and looking down on us he would squat and talk to us…right down on our level. He didn’t tell us really how to do the scenes. It was more, ‘OK, you’re going to start from here and we need you to move here…’ He let us do the scene and then he would tweak it, so that he would get the most natural response possible, and I think that’s brilliant. We were never allowed to talk to an actor out of costume (on set). They were just there the day we had to work with them and then they were that person they were playing. Bob did these things to get the most out of us nonactors.”
LAB: “You and Phillip were thrust into this strange world of lights-cameras.”
MB: “Now, I was used to having a camera stuck in my face from the time I was born because I was my father’s first little girl. He’d had all these ratty boys and then he finally got his dream with me when he was 60 years old. That was back in the days when flash cameras had the light bulbs that would pop and the home movie cameras needed a bank of lights. So, yeah, I grew up with all of that. Phillip and I grew up four blocks from one another. But we would never have met
because I was in private school — he was in public school. He was 13. I was only 9.”
LAB: “There’s such truth in all the performances.”
MB: “I think our backgrounds helped in that a lot, because Atticus (Peck) was from a small town in Calif. (La Jolla) that looked very much like that little village (in Mockingbird). He knew that period well. And for Phillip and I nothing much had changed in Birmingham, Ala. from the 1930s to the 1960s. All the same social rules were in place. Women did not go out of the house unless their hair was done and they had their hats and gloves on. Servants and children were to be seen and not heart. Black people still rode on the back of the bus. And there were lynchings on certain roads you knew you couldn’t go down. There were still colored and white drinking fountains when I was growing up. So all of that was just totally normal for us. There’s no way you could have explained that to a child from Los Angeles. They wouldn’t have known how to react to all that stuff. My next door neighbor (during the shoot in Calif.) was this black man with a beautiful blond bombshell wife and two gorgeous kids, and down the road was an Oriental family, and we visited — went to dinner at their house. We could never do that in Alabama. It just would not happen.”
- To Kill a Mockingbird Turns 50 (austinist.com)
- ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Anniversary: Anna Quindlen On The Greatness Of Scout (huffingtonpost.com)
- 51 reviews of To Kill a Mockingbird (rateitall.com)
- Great Characters: Atticus Finch (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) (gointothestory.com)
- Films For Father’s Day (npr.org)
- Harper Lee – We Hardly Know Ye (pspostscript.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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