“Gem, some men are just born to do our dirty jobs for us. Your father is one of those men.” —Maudie character in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The character of Atticus Finch, the widowed country lawyer, charged with defending an innocent black man in the pre-even-pretense-of enlightened South of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is frequently chosen for top honors on the “most admired” and “most heroic” lists generated by so-called literary and cinematic experts. I find that to be altogether fitting and proper—in no small part due to the magnificent way in which that character was portrayed in the screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s semi-autobiographical novel.
Gregory Peck, whose very appearance in the re-runs of most any film in which he appears is wont to inspire contemporary exclamations of “they just don’t make movies like that anymore,” gave one of the most memorable performances in the long annals of Hollywood movie-making with his portrayal of that small town lawyer, enough so that the names of actor and character will be forever linked.
There are just some givens in this life: Sean Connery is James Bond; Charlton Heston is Moses, and Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch.
I hope, in defiance of the all too common and almost always wrong current fad in Hollywood, that nobody ever tries to remake “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is as if the present Tinsel Town crowd figures that since none of the current ideas for movies are very good ones (Mute girl falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, as example), they’ll just try to make jazzy, special-effected new versions of the classics — never, of course, quite managing to pull them off.
Memo to Hollywood: Check the definition of “classic.”
But if they try to pull the remake stunt with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” they will not only be committing a sin greater than the one which spawned the novel and movie’s title, they will also find that absent the late Mr. Peck, nobody else in the world, talented as he might be, could inspire enough “willing suspension of disbelief” as would be required of viewers to convince them that he was Atticus Finch.
I defy anyone who re-reads “To Kill a Mockingbird” — something, by the way, which every living American would benefit from every year or two — to visualize anyone other than Peck speaking the lines in Miss Lee’s masterpiece. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, it’s him, because Gregory Peck did not portray Atticus Finch, he became Atticus Finch.
Peck’s portrayal was perfect all the way to a presence-producing posture of the soft-spoken, courteous but courageous courtly country attorney whose love for the law was trumped only by his devotion to his two children.
Atticus Finch understood the people, black and white, of Great Depressionracked rural Alabama. He recognized the effects of “ignorance and cruel poverty,” understood the tragic mores of the time which resulted in a one-armed black man’s being on trial for his life — accused of rape, when the only “crime” he had committed was “the unmitigated temerity of feeling sorry for a white woman.”
Perhaps more importantly, Atticus Finch understood himself. In today’s parlance, he was comfortable in his own skin. He could be tender with his children, brave in standing down a would-be lynch mob, compassionate and genteel enough to remove his hat before entering the tenant shack home of his court-appointed client to tell his wife he was dead, and passionately, righteously indignant in the hoursearlier closing argument that he hoped, if not believed, might save him.
All of that, Peck emoted, ennobled.
To me, that courtroom scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the single most powerful one ever captured on film. Finch effectively proves Tom Robinson is innocent. Finch effectively proves his client’s dirtpoor accusers were such only to maintain their wretched positions within the completely inflexible societal codes of the day, bordered as they were by galvanized racism.
And after what is in retrospect the predictably inevitable guilty verdict is handed down, Finch’s children, seated with the black townsfolk in the courthouse balcony, remain so as those around them rise in silent tribute, as the lawyer, head bowed, walks toward the door.
“Stand up, Miss Jean Louise,” their minister says to Finch’s tomboy daughter. “Stand up, your father’s passing.”
Let any man who has a daughter maintain a dry eye at the thought of having such respect of him relayed to her.
I know I’ll never be as good a man as the one Gregory Peck so flawlessly portrayed, a simple statement of fact to which mine would be honesty compelled to attest.
But then again, she did name her son Atticus.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.