Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Gregory Peck Centennial

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel over at The Film Experience, where I also contribute occasionally.

Gregory Peck is one of my favorite actors. I think it's the eyebrow - you know the one. The one that's always cocked upward in amusement or befuddlement or just winking in an old-school "how YOU doin'?" kinda way. I'm not sure how it nearly always stays up there, but it does, and it's amazing.

The other reason I love him, of course, is Atticus Finch. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and Robert Mulligan's film version is the gold standard of page-to-screen adaptations as far as I'm concerned. Horton Foote's lyrical screenplay is a lovely distillation, of course, but there's also Mary Badham's precocious performance as Scout, and Peck's note-perfect portrayal of Atticus, the greatest father in the world. Tough but fair, friendly but fearsomely fierce when called for, and most importantly wise beyond anything.

The film doesn't put a foot wrong, starting right at the opening credits sequence, using a child's box of treasures and drawings - and Elmer Bernstein's perfect score - to immediately put you in the headspace of a six year-old girl. I don't think any film has ever put you so efficiently into the mood of the film - just watching the opening credits of Robert Mulligan's masterpiece makes you nostalgic for Maycomb, Alabama of the mid-1930s, even if you've never been there.

I love To Kill A Mockingbird so much that it's difficult to pick one shot as "Best". A large part of me wanted to highlight one of the unsung members of the supporting cast and pick one of the shots that they just knock out of the park (Mulligan hardly ever cuts in the middle of conversations or big speeches here, bless him) - like Rosemary Murphy as Maudie ("Some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us."), or Frank Overton as Sheriff Heck Tate ("It's a sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head."). Or hell, even two of the meatier roles that somehow STILL manage to be unsung:

Brock Peters as Tom Robinson and Collin Wilcox Paxton as Mayella Ewell.
The greatest push-in in movie history?
 But the one I toyed with the most is the introduction to Robert Duvall's Arthur "Boo" Radley:

...because his face is so fucking gorgeous so ably portrays so many emotions while seemingly hardly doing anything at all.

And don't even get me started on any shot from the justifiably famous, perfect, tear-jerking "your father's passing" scene.

But there were two shots of Atticus that really captured me this time around, watching with this project in mind. The first is perhaps more notable for what's playing on the soundtrack while it happens:
Best Shot Runner-Up
This happens while Scout is sleepily asking Jem about their mother, and it's our first real insight into Atticus as something more than just a perfect father - he's kind of alone in this world. Peck's performance, combined with the dialogue, makes you wonder about what his life was like before his wife passed away, and how it affected him, without ever going so far as to suggest he is how he is now because she's no longer around. A tricky line to walk. Like the rest of the film, it's perfectly judged.

But it was this one that struck me most, in a way I wasn't quite prepared for.

We're never this far away from anyone at any point in the film. It reinforces the idea that Atticus is very much alone in his plight, possibly completely alone in his principles and how he sees the world. He's talking to Tom, his black client accused of rape, in jail, after an angry white mob attempted to take justice into their own hands (only to be saved by Atticus's own daughter). He's telling Tom that he will be alright, that they won't come after him again. That's not exactly true - Bob Ewell will come for Tom at the trial, as will the jury. Throughout all of it, Atticus stands tall, but he also stands alone, guided by the shining light of justice. He may be right, but it's still a lonely place to be.

*                *                *

I'd also like to talk about Roman Holiday a little, since Nathaniel wanted us to choose one and I missed the last two episodes of Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Plus, I really like Roman Holiday. It's not great, but it is charming beyond measure and pretty much a joy to watch. I mean, it's not every day you get to watch a STAR just blossom before you as fully as Audrey Hepburn does here. She's maybe not entirely deserving of the Oscar she won - she's VERY green and it often shows quite badly - but it's impossible to deny her presence, and when she lets loose one of those gorgeous smiles it's as if the sun is shining right on you; she makes you feel as though this smile is something special, that you have earned it somehow, and that she's smiling at you, only you. Which is perfect, since she's playing a princess.

But when I think of Roman Holiday, there's only one shot that I stands out for me as "best". It's true that the film gets lots of mileage out of its location shooting in Rome, but despite all the lovely architecture there simply aren't many shots that capture my imagination - and choosing one of Audrey smiling is just cheating; anyone could shoot that and make it look great.

No, the best shot of Roman Holiday is by far its very last one:

I have mentioned before that I am a hopeless romantic, and professed my love for a very specific type of romantic film - one about love that burns bright for a very short amount of time but cannot, must not, last. Roman Holiday is one of the ones that ends without the leads ending up together, and director William Wyler knows exactly how to make that ending work. After all the rest of the journalists leave, let Gregory Peck stay behind. Give one shot of him dwarfed by the palatial room, one shot/reverse shot of him watching where the Princess has just exited, and then, tracking shot of him walking out. All the way. Don't cut away, don't look anywhere else, just watch him leave. It's suspenseful even though we know she's not coming. It's impossible to look away from. It's the best possible way to end the film - in the sure, steady hands of Gregory Peck.


  1. He is also one of my all time favourite actors. I love it that he was on Nixon's hit list as a subversive:) To me, he is Atticus and this movie is special. I love Roman Holiday and, you are right, the end part makes me cry. it is so bittersweet and so heartfelt

    1. LOL how could anyone think Gregory Peck was subversive? Progressive, maybe. Oh, Dick!

      If you read interviews with anyone who knew him they say the same thing: That he basically WAS Atticus. It's one of the rare truly perfect matches of actor and character, and certainly a triumph for the guy who previously complained about only getting Cary Grant's castoffs!

      To me, the last scene of Roman Holiday really makes the film. It's nice and all, but everything about that last scene is so perfect that it just lifts the entire thing up to immortal status.

  2. Nice choices. I really like Gregory Peck as well though he's never been one of my favorites. I prefer actors that have just a little more of a rough edge-John Garfield, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan and Peck is nothing if not resolute and dignified with an inherent quality of rectitude. It's why he could never be a believable heavy, i.e. his ludicrous miscasting in Duel in the Sun. It's also what makes him absolutely perfect for Mockingbird.

    It's been a long time since I've watched the film and I can't honestly say I remember the scene your best shot is from but from your description it's very evocative.

    Now the scene you reference in Roman Holiday is clear as a bell to me and I agree it's a masterful shot and the exactly right wrap up to the film.

    I'm in agreement that while Audrey is captivating the Oscar for this was a bit premature. Jean Simmons was the original choice and was unavailable and if you watch Audrey's work in the film knowing that there is a great deal of Simmons in the performance. I not saying that to fault the performance, Audrey and Jean were similar in manner so in many of their films it's not had to envision the other actress, but it might have been Wyler's influence since his conception of the role was originally drawn with the more experienced Jean in the part.

    But she won in a pretty weak lineup and she would be the only one I'd personally give a nod to out of the five, I love Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity but the part is really supporting in the overall scheme of the picture. And since my choice, Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, failed to snag a nomination I'm glad she won though I think she was much better in other films, Two for the Road especially.

    1. Not many of Peck's films are my favorites (Mockingbird aside), but I always love HIM in them. He's just so staunch and stalwart, rock-solid. It's interesting, even in his youngest film roles he had the feeling of someone older, wiser - not quite a sex symbol even though he was obviously good-looking.

      It's hard to feel churlish about Roman Holiday making Audrey a star, since she so clearly radiates it from practically her very first shot. Most of the film rests on her shoulders and she carries it almost effortlessly. It's not a great feat of acting, but with her charm and charisma, it almost doesn't need to be for it to work. I still feel bad for Deborah Kerr, though, and I've heard good things about Ava Gardner in Mogambo.

    2. Ava is without question the very best thing in that limp noodle remake of Red Dust but her award worthy moments were Night of the Iguana and Show Boat and there was work that belonged in the competition more than hers. I'm very glad she received a nod at some point in her career I just wish it had been for one of her truly outstanding performances but at the point she was nominated she was at a career high and that probably factored in.

      Poor Deborah Kerr! Always a bridesmaid but at times she was in the same situation as Ava, nominated for the wrong film. But then the academy loves to hand out nominations for visible ACTING, there can be no other explanation for her nods for her average work in the excruciatingly dull Edward, My Son or her fussy work in Separate Tables. Yet they ignored her more naturalistic but intense work in both Black Narcissus and The Innocents. At least they gave her an honorary before it was too late.

  3. Great tribute to a great actor and a towering achievement in film.

    1. Thanks, Dell! I get where people are coming from when they say Mockingbird is too simple, but I think it works, especially since the whole thing is presented as a childhood memory. I hate that it didn't win Best Picture, but it's pretty tough to deny Lawrence of Arabia...

    2. It totally works...and it's twice the movie that is the bloated spectacle known as Lawrence of Arabia.