One of the greatest authors in American literature left us today when Harper Lee died at the age of 89. She passed peacefully in her birthplace of Monroeville, Alabama, the town she brilliantly fictionalized as the small community of Maycomb in her astounding first and only novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Though a second book, “Go Set a Watchman,” was published last summer, it is really an inferior first draft of the story that became a worldwide beloved literary work. First published in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” then won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and became a motion picture in 1962. That equally brilliant film adaptation brought actor Gregory Peck his signature role and Hollywood one of its most unforgettable classic movies.
Set in the 1930’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” beautifully serves up both a heartwarming and often humorous depiction of growing up in the south and a powerful indictment on race relations. It centers around a young and stubborn barefooted tomboy named Scout (Mary Badham), her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) and their diminutive highfalutin friend Dill (John Megna). They spend their summers acting out favorite stories and making up many of their own about their never seen reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. In due course, they also come to learn about racial prejudice firsthand when Scout’s father, a humble lawyer named Atticus Finch, takes on the impossible task of defending a black man accused of the rape of a young white woman.
An impeccable Gregory Peck personifies Atticus as the all-time example of an ethically unshakeable and chivalrous southern gentleman. Yet he never comes across as a ridiculous romantic fantasy. That’s due to the quiet dignity and depth of feeling he brings with his very human performance of absolute perfection that never lessens no matter how many times you watch it. There was no way it was not going to earn him the Academy Award for Best Actor.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” won two more Oscars for its Art Direction and Horton Foote’s adapted screenplay. It received an additional five nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Mulligan, and Best Supporting Actress for the marvelously inimitable 10-year-old Mary Badham. A third example of perfect casting is Robert Duvall in his big screen debut as Boo Radley. Though he appears late in the film and has no dialogue, he barely steps out of the shadows to unforgettably humanize this assumed monster with his own quiet dignity and sympathetic vulnerability.
The character of Dill was based on Lee’s childhood pal author Truman Capote. In 1959, she accompanied Capote on a trip to Holcombe, Kansas to help him research the horrible family massacre he wrote of in his aptly titled “In Cold Blood.” Their relationship during this time is touched on in the 2005 movie, “Capote,” with Catherine Keener portraying Harper Lee opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman. A year later, Sandra Bullock took on the role of Lee opposite Toby Jones in the even better film “Infamous.”