Jack Garner: 'Mockingbird' soared on film
10:22 AM, Jul 24, 2013
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s one and only novel (and one and only masterpiece), has led to interpretations on stage and screen.
The stage version, an adaptation of Lee’s novel by Christopher Sergel, is being presented at Bristol Valley Theatre in Naples starting Thursday through Aug. 4.
And, hopefully, most of us have seen the justifiably famous film version by Robert Mulligan, with a beautiful script by Horton Foote. When confronted by the argument often raised that no film is as good as the book from which it is adapted, I always submit To Kill a Mockingbird in response. (I can also think of at least three films, off the top of my head, that surpass the books upon which they are based The Godfather I and II and Jaws.)
The film of Mockingbird also overflows with some of my favorite, memorable trivia, including:
Robert Duvall’s debut, in a remarkable wordless appearance as the mysterious Boo Radley.
Gregory Peck being so iconic and brilliant as Atticus Finch, despite being a third choice after Rock Hudson and Jimmy Stewart declined. Peck delivered the climatic nine-minute courtroom summation in one take. Harper Lee was so moved, she gave Peck her father’s pocket watch. (Finch was based on her father.)
That Peck and Brock Peters (as the man Finch was defending) became so close on the film that Peters was chosen to deliver the eulogy at Peck’s funeral. Peck, of course, won the Oscar, overcoming the greatest single performance to not win the Academy Award Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia.
That the lovely Oscar-nominated score by Elmer Bernstein was carried by gentle minimalist piano melodies played by a young studio pianist named … John Williams.
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE. Hot on the heels of his Oscar-winning success with The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino went all out with an extravagant, over-the-top Western epic called Heaven’s Gate, which is often credited with putting the kibosh on the wave of talented but brash young filmmakers of the ’70s. It’s also considered the over-budget, self-indulgent film that virtually killed a famous Hollywood studio, United Artists, which went on the auction block shortly after the film’s 1980 release.
The film was originally released at 3 hours and 40 minutes, failed miserably at the box office, was quickly recalled by studio executives who then cut 70 minutes from it, and tried a re-release without much success. The tale of immigrant farmers and cattlemen (a plot not unlike Shane) just didn’t fly at either length.
However, over the years, Heaven’s Gate has continued to be re-evaluated, in part because of its truly astonishing set pieces and the performances by Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken (fresh from his Oscar-winning success in The Deer Hunter), and the great French actress Isabele Huppert, and because of David Mansfield’s richly evocative folk music score.
So now you can judge for yourself, as the beautifully restored 216-minute director’s cut is being screened at the Eastman House Dryden Theatre (with a 7 p.m. start, thank goodness) on Aug. 3.
TEACHER, TEACHER. Turner Classic Movies Thursday showcases two superb films, based on the special relationships, for good or ill, between charismatic teachers and impressionable charges.
First up, at 8 p.m., is Ronald Neame’s memorable 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, about a young, headstrong teacher in an English public school (which is what they call their private schools). She ignores the curriculum and puts all sorts of ideas into the heads of students, who love her.
The film is noteworthy for many of us in the U.S. as the first time we became aware of the great actor Maggie Smith. She was 35 when she won the Oscar for her performance in the title role.
The film’s title song, Jean, written by poet Rod McKuen, became a big hit.
The second film, at 10 p.m., is from 20 years later. Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society is about an English teacher (Robin Williams) who inspires his students at a New England boarding school to “seize the day,” though his philosophy backfires. The young cast included several future stars, including Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles and Ethan Hawke.
The film’s score, by Maurice Jarre, is also memorable, and Williams, Weir, and the film itself earned Oscar nominations. Tom Schulman won for his script.