Richard J. Leskosky | 'Mockingbird's' enduring story coming to Virginia

Richard J. Leskosky | 'Mockingbird's' enduring story coming to Virginia

Childhood memories of a 1930s southern town, racial bigotry and a noble father come to life in Universal's film adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 best-seller, "To Kill a Mockingbird," the next installment in The News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, screening at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $6.

Lee based her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on events and people she grew up with in Monroeville, Ala. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, provided the template for the novel's Atticus Finch, and an eccentric neighbor down the street never showed his face during the daytime, like the Boo Radley character. Precocious visiting neighbor boy Dill she based on her childhood friend Truman Capote.

The novel's great appeal stems from its evocation of a specific time and place, its genuine, heartfelt characters, the social and moral issues it deals with, and its filtering all that through a child's perspective. Producer Alan J. Pakula, screenwriter Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan were passionately dedicated to transposing Lee's story to the screen as faithfully as possible and they succeeded admirably.

Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford), the young children of lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), begin to become aware of evil and prejudice when Atticus reluctantly agrees to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a poor young white woman (Collin Wilcox Paxton). From the courtroom balcony, Scout and Jem watch as Atticus demolishes the case against Robinson — despite the young woman's fearful insistence that she was not lying about the incident and the "eyewitness" testimony of her father (James Anderson), a man full of bitterness, violence and guilt.

At the same time, childish curiosity drives Scout and Jem to poke around the nearby house where a young man (Robert Duvall) has turned into a virtually unseen recluse after casually stabbing his father.

Nicknamed "Boo" by his less sensitive neighbors, he has become something of a local boogeyman, but Scout and Jem establish a sort of tenuous bond with him even though they never actually see him clearly until a crisis occurs the Halloween after the trial.

Pakula and Mulligan made the conscious decision to use, apart from Peck, Anderson (who had played villains in many westerns and TV series), and Paul Fix (who plays the judge and had appeared in literally hundreds of films), actors whose experience had been primarily on the stage rather than the screen.

Even Anderson they first spotted on the stage in the title role in Albert Camus' "Caligula." (An uncredited Kim Stanley, who had established a reputation for serious acting both on and off Broadway, supplied the narration as the voice of an adult Scout.) The always impressive Duvall makes his big screen debut here in the mute role of Boo Radley (after bleaching his hair and avoiding the sun for six weeks before filming began).

Alford had acted only in a couple of local theater productions, and Badham (younger sister of John Badham, the director of "Saturday Night Fever") had never acted before at all.

But the young performers fit their roles so well and worked so effectively with the adult actors that Badham became the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his performance, the defining role of his career. "To Kill a Mockingbird" was his favorite film — not so much for the Oscar but because of the material and the resonances between Atticus' personality and his own. He rendered Atticus' six-and-a-half minute summation at the end of the trial in one heartfelt take, but throughout the film he gives a superbly nuanced performance, as when he realizes that one sentence in his client's testimony has determined the verdict.

Peters delivered that emotionally wrenching testimony in a moving performance that should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor but did not — one of the Academy’s major oversights with respect to African-American actors.

The film’s sets, which become characters in their own right earned art directors Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzon an Oscar. The real Monroeville had changed so much from the 1930s that location shooting there was impossible.  

Bumstead, one of Hollywood’s greatest designers/art directors, found a town in California’s San Fernando Valley where the houses matched Lee’s descriptions of her hometown but were  due to be demolished for a highway. He bought several and rebuilt them on the 15-acre set on the Universal lot. The courtroom where the central action takes place is his reconstruction of the Monroeville courtroom where Lee’s father practiced law.

Besides winning Oscars for Peck’s performance and the set design, “To Kill a Mockingbird” won “Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium” for playwright Horton Foote’s sensitive adaptation.

Other nominations came in for Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Badham), Black and White Cinematography and Musical Score — Substantially Original  (composed by Elmer Bernstein).  “Lawrence of Arabia” took Picture, Director and Musical Score that year, and Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for playing Hellen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”

The film appears on several American Film Institute “Best” lists:  25th on The Hundred Best Movies, second among America’s (100) Most Inspiring Movies and first out of the top ten Courtroom Dramas. Atticus ranks first among the 50 top Heroes, and Leonard Bernstein’s score comes in at No. 17 among the 25 top Film Scores.

Even after more than 55 years and many changes in our society, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a deeply moving film and one of the best mainstream films dealing with racial prejudice. It endures as one of Hollywood’s most moral films without ever becoming preachy or heavy handed.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the UI and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net. Leskosky will be discussing “To Kill a Mockingbird” and answering questions about it following the screening Saturday night.

Topics (1):Film