Tuesday, April 5, 2016

This Day in Film History (Birth of Gregory Peck, Enduring Symbol of Decency)

Apr. 5, 1916—Gregory Peck, one of Hollywood’s most durable and bankable leading men from the Forties to Sixties, who won an Oscar for an iconic role of decency and dignity in To Kill a Mockingbird, was born in La Jolla, Calif.

"We all wished we looked like Greg, and sounded like him," a co-star on three of his films, Anthony Quinn, said. That seems a good place to begin to assess his appeal.

Start with the looks: Tall and rugged enough to get him cast in westerns and action films that called for fight scenes, not to mention romantic comedies and dramas whose actresses practically swooned at the mere memory of him. His leading ladies included Jennifer Jones, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Angie Dickinson. None seems ever to have uttered a bad word about him.

Then that voice, low and steady enough to get him cast as a paternal or authority figure, but also with something held back, sometimes with great cost, so that when he lets it loose—as maimed Captain Ahab in Moby Dick or the WWII mission leader issuing a sharp command in The Guns of Navarone—the effect can be startling. Had his face never appeared on the big screen, Peck could have carved out a more than serviceable career in radio.

Atticus Finch, the role for which Peck is best known, has come to personify quiet but unflagging courage. The actor only poured everything he had into the lawyer-hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, “all my feelings and everything I'd learned in 46 years of living, about family life and fathers and children. And my feelings about racial justice and inequality and opportunity.” It showed. His principal competition for Best Actor at the 1962 Oscars, Peter O’Toole, had his own signature role with Lawrence of Arabia, but Peck may have had the harder part. After all, how do you humanize someone seemingly perfect?

Peck was the first to admit that in real life, while deeply blessed, he was hardly perfect or without pain. In his early years in Hollywood, he drank too much; his first marriage ended in divorce; a son committed suicide; he briefly walked off the stressful set of The Big Country after one too many quarrels with director William Wyler; and the industry that awarded him a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute had left him unemployed for six years before, even though he retained all his old skill and acting prowess. 

Perhaps the disappointment came to form part of his mystique, the one ingredient he needed to convince audiences he was authentically human, even if almost unfairly gifted.

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