I was flipping through the channels on my TV the other day and ultimately decided on a couple episodes of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Yes, I’m one of those weirdos who still pays for cable. I also love dad jokes, prefer a night in over a night out and often find myself wide awake by seven in the morning. In other words, I’m old.
The reason the Daily Show caught my attention that day was because of the guests who were on it. First up was Dwyane Wade, who was reflecting on playing his last season in the NBA and his plans for his post-playing career. This did nothing to make me feel any younger and I think I fell into a small but brief depression. The next guest was Andrew Gillum, the Democratic Candidate in the recent Florida Gubernatorial election.
Gillum wound up losing that race, but he inspired a lot of people during his campaign and something he said to Noah in the interview caught my attention: “My grandmother used to have this saying, ‘Never, ever, ever wrestle with pigs,’ she said, ‘because you both get dirty, but the pig actually likes it.’”
I was reminded of a key scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is at Tom Robinson’s home to inform Tom’s wife of her husband’s death. As he is trying to console her, Bob Ewell arrives to confront Atticus. Mr. Ewell is just a bit peeved at Atticus for defending Tom after the latter was accused of raping Ewell’s daughter, Mayella, and he sure is hell is going to make it known. Even though Tom was clearly innocent and convicted anyway, it makes no difference. When Atticus comes outside, Ewell spits in his face. Instead of retaliating or simply objecting, as most people would’ve done, Atticus wipes off the spit, gets in his car where his son Jem is waiting and drives home.
If Gregory Peck ever faced that scenario in his real life, I’d imagine that he would’ve resolved it virtually the same way. As Harper Lee put it: “Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself.”
For all the reasons that Mockingbird is as revered as it is, Peck’s performance is almost certainly at the forefront of why people are so moved by it. After all, he brought one of the most beloved characters in all of fiction to life. Here is a widower with a strong moral code, who is raising his two children by himself (albeit with a good deal of help from housekeeper Calpurnia), willingly defends a black man in court in Alabama during the 1930s and also happens to be the best shot in town, as proven when he has to put down a rabid dog. Atticus really is more superhero than man. Was there a large red “S” concealed inside his suit all those times he went to court? I don’t think anyone would be surprised.
Peck was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, so in a way he was his own kind of superhero. He also starred in a bevy of other films, including Roman Holiday, Cape Fear and Gentleman’s Agreement, among others, but Mockingbird is by far the one he’s most known for. Is it because it earned him his first Oscar? Or is it due to the legions of fans of Lee’s novel who idolize him for doing their favorite book justice? To an extent it’s probably both, but I have my own theory.
During periods of unrest, we often look to those who inspire us in the hope that they’ll shine a light through all the darkness. Mockingbird was released in 1962 at the onset of the civil rights movement, which goes without saying was an extremely divisive time in this country. Gillum’s campaign came two years into the Presidency of Donald Trump, and I think I can safely describe those two years as turbulent without getting too political, because that’s not why we’re here. The point is that just as people looked to Gillum as a beacon of optimism, the same can be said for how people felt about Peck’s Atticus Finch. He resonated with audiences because of the character’s genuine decency that they so desperately craved in their real lives, and the performance was boosted because that’s who Peck really was.
This is all just one humble writer’s opinion, of course, much like it’s my opinion that Mockingbird is very much of it’s time. Could you make a film in 1962 where anyone other than a noble white man could stand up for the black people of a small town? Would this movie not be ripped apart on social media today by those who decried it for taking that perspective? Or is Mockingbird immune to criticism because of its reputation as a literary and cinematic classic?
People can feel differently about this and that’s okay. After all, film is subjective, but I didn’t care much when Boo Radley finally got off his ass and did something helpful at the end. I wasn’t really invested in anything that happened in the final act, because for me the film screeches to a halt after Tom is wrongly convicted of the crime and then killed by the deputy who was transferring him. It is absurdly tragic to me that this is the most timeless part of Mockingbird and yet it is brushed aside while the Finch family are all safe and happy at the end. Accurate adaptation or not, it just doesn’t sit right with me.
How bold it would have been to cut to credits at the end of Tom’s trial, preserving the most famous line in the film: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” Failing to do the impossible doesn’t make Atticus any less valiant, nor does it make Peck any less inspirational.