#35) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
OR “Your First Freshman English Paper”
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Written by Horton Foote. Based on the novel by Harper Lee.
Class of 1995
The Plot: Loosely based on Harper Lee’s childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, “To Kill a Mockingbird” concerns a young girl named Scout (Mary Badham, older version voiced by Kim Stanley) and her life in 1930s Alabama with her brother Jem (Philip Alford) and her father Atticus (Gregory Peck). When Atticus is asked to legally defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman (Collin Wilcox), Scout and Jem learn about racial and political injustice while coming of age.
Why It Matters: The NFR says the film is “adapted exquisitely” from its source novel, and mentions Peck’s performance.
But Does It Really?: God bless this movie. The book might still be controversial in some quarters, and the film might not help the whole “white savior” phenomenon, but at its core “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a beautifully told, wonderfully filmed story about perspective and tolerance. Peck is giving the performance of a lifetime in a way that somehow calls attention to itself but at the same time isn’t flashy. While maybe a little too wistful for its own good, the film still teaches an important lesson on what it takes to truly be human.
Everybody Gets One: Let’s start with child actors Mary Badham and Philip Alford. Their acting careers seemed to wane with the onset of puberty, but both would go on to be successful in other professions. Also making their only appearance are character actors Rosemary Murphy, William Windom, and Collin Wilcox. And so far this is director Robert Mulligan’s only film to make the cut.
Wow, That’s Dated: During a few dramatic moments (most notably Mayella’s testimony), there’s some artificial zooming going on within the frame. I always associate that with late ‘50s/early ‘60s filmmaking.
Title Track: Atticus says the phrase “to kill a mockingbird” once about 37 minutes in. It’s a metaphor about destroying innocence…or something like that. Scout comes close towards the end by paraphrasing the title.
Seriously, Oscars?: “To Kill a Mockingbird” was nominated for eight Oscars and won three; Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Best Actor for Gregory Peck (one of the rare times the Oscars got it absolutely right). The film lost Picture, Director and Original Score to the equally good but much more epic “Lawrence of Arabia”. And 10-year-old Mary Badham was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (even though she’s a co-lead), but lost to 16-year-old Patty Duke (also a co-lead in “The Miracle Worker”).
- Everyone’s favorite piece of literary trivia, Dill Harris is based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend from Monroeville: Truman Capote.
- According to Superman Vol. 2 #81, this is Clark Kent’s favorite film. Which is surprising, you’d think he’d pick something with his dad in it.
- No offense to then nine-year-old Mary Badham, but I do not believe that Scout is six at the beginning.
- Geez, Dill asks more exposition-based questions than Elliot Page in “Inception”.
- What exactly was the jury selection like for this trial?
- For his testimony, I find Bob Ewell guilty of first-degree bad continuity.
- Collin Wilcox strikes me as an early ‘60s Amanda Plummer. So…Tammy Grimes, I guess.
- Man, they really like the phrase “bust up a chifforobe”. There’s your drinking game.
- Kudos to Brock Peters. His performance is quite impactful, which is impressive because it’s essentially one scene.
- And then there’s Atticus’ final summation. Jesus Christ, is that good. They cut away when they need to, but for the most part Peck does it in one take, and boy does he nail it.
- Ah yes, Elmer Bernstein’s poignant “Walking Home with a Ham” theme. If you think that’s ridiculous, you should have seen some of the other kids at the pageant.
- With his performance as Boo Radley, Robert Duvall makes his film debut, as well as his first of at least eight appearances on the National Film Registry.
- Harper Lee never wrote another book after “To Kill a Mockingbird” and very publicly (and entertainingly) declined any and all interviews. The release of the sequel/first draft “Go Set a Watchman” is still mired in controversy.
- For many years “To Kill a Mockingbird” was annually produced as a stage play in the old courthouse of Harper Lee’s hometown. In true Harper Lee fashion, she refused to ever attend.
- Submitted for your approval, Scout’s seemingly innocent yet obviously dubbed appearance on the last episode of… “The Twilight Zone”.
- Without Boo Radley, there’d be no Old Man Marley/Pigeon Lady.
- This film is probably responsible for every “White People End Racism” movie ever, from “The Help” to “Hairspray” to “Hidden Fences”.
- As for film sequels, I think the closest we’ll ever get is “Capote”/“Infamous”.
- Also I recently met someone who named their child Atticus. So…there’s that legacy for ya.
Further Reading/Viewing: For those of you wondering what Truman Capote made of his childhood, he wrote two short stories about it: “A Christmas Memory” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor”. Both stories were first adapted for television in the late ‘60s starring Geraldine Page, and then remade in 1997 starring Patty Duke (full circle!). A stage version features a tomboy character named Nellie, who may or may not be Harper Lee.