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Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird (DVD Review)

25 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

First Run
Box Office $0.03 million
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

Writer-director Mary Murphy’s appreciation of all things Mockingbird has to be the most appealing book junkie’s documentary (or movie of any kind) since 2002’s The Stone Reader — and she had to pull off this feat with a huge crater in the middle of her picture. That would be author (Nelle) Harper Lee’s total abstinence from interviews since a New York radio Q&A in 1964, which Murphy’s portrait samples generously.

Assumed to be something like the no-nonsense tomboy “Scout” narrator she invented for the only novel she ever wrote, Lee turns out to be something of a “Boo” Radley — the elusive key character Robert Duvall played in the 1962 movie version of the book (his big-screen debut). In her own milieu, Lee hasn’t been a recluse, and no one has had any trouble spotting her walking around hometown Monroeville, AL. It’s just that she doesn’t like to speak in public — and more recently has been severely impaired by a stroke and significant blindness (something the documentary doesn’t address).

Murphy gets around this narrative void by approaching the novel and its influence from almost every angle and by having scored a couple direct coups. One was landing the participation of Lee’s older sister Alice Lee — who, though 99 and severely hearing-impaired, is so mentally sharp that she works several hours every day. The other was Universal OK-ing the use of substantial clips from its movie version, which many (Lee herself and interviewed Oprah Winfrey are just two) regard as one of the most satisfactory movies ever made from a major novel. I hope the studio is working on a commemorative Blu-ray edition of Mockingbird because Russell Harlan’s black-and-white photography got an Oscar nomination — the same year he got an additional nom for shooting Technicolor Hatari! (an amazing dual feat).

It is sometimes forgotten that Mockingbird was published in 1960, before the Civil Rights movement hit full force with the Freedom Riders and sit-down protests at Southern luncheon counters. While protestors were affecting change in their own way — interviewed former activist Andrew Young admits that, at first, he took a kind of “I’m too busy living this to read a novel about it” attitude — Lee was distilling her own experiences about racial attitudes in the small-town South and basing her Atticus Finch lawyer character (Scout is his daughter) on her own father. Working as an airline ticket agent in New York City, Lee received a remarkable Christmas gift in 1956 from friends Michael and Joy Brown (both interviewed here). They staked her to a year of not having to work a regular job so she could work on any writing project she wanted.

The documentary approaches Mockingbird from the angles of the racial progress it portended; as a work of Southern literature (many Southern writers weigh in); as a formative experience for other well-known folks (Winfrey, Rosanne Cash, Tom Brokaw); and as the source of a movie that will turn 50 next year. Mary Badham — who, in one of the great casting strokes ever, was first “discovered” and then chosen to play Scout — recollects what has to have been the key experience of her professional life (like Lee, she remained a lifelong friend of Gregory Peck, who won his Oscar for Mockingbird). There’s also the Lee real-life experience that eventually led to her being portrayed on screen by Catherine Keener in 2005’s Capote and by Sandra Bullock in the following year’s Infamous. This was, of course, the author’s childhood friendship with visiting next-door neighbor Truman Capote, which led to her accompanying him to Kansas when he was researching In Cold Blood. The basis for the novel’s “Dill” character, Capote (and his jealousies over Lee’s success) do not come off well here, and one can just imagine what Leigh thought of her eventual ex-friend’s sycophantic suck-ups at Studio 54.

About the only aspect Murphy misses is the persistent effort by congenital doofuses in various states (usually with minimal electoral votes) to ban Mockingbird from libraries. I’ve had this lifelong fantasy to see — just once — someone interview the high school English teachers of such perpetrators. You can just hear it: “Got straight ‘Ds’ — and that was charity because mom was on the school board; couldn’t parse a sentence, even if someone was threatening to kill his pit bull; confused Henry James with Jesse; wrote his term paper on Pat Robertson.” This important omission aside, every book you’ve ever liked and admired should have its on-screen day in similar fashion.

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