Keeping the Mockingbird Alive | Mary Badham Recalls “Scout”

prof_scout_sm.jpg"This has impacted people all over the world," Mary Badham said, regarding the whole Mockingbird phenomenon.

 

 

 

 

 

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"Hey, Boo!" Just two words. That’s all it took for Mary Badham, as the wide-eyed young Scout in the legendary film To Kill a Mockingbird, to bring things to an emotional climax, and elicit the sort of deep, beyond-tears response that movies seldom do for me anymore. When Scout acknowledges the previously spooky Boo Radley for the first time, after realizing he’s saved the lives of her and brother Jem, it’s one of those touchstone moments in movie magic—one my family and I have shared together many times through the years.

There are a number of such moments in Mockingbird, the beloved adaptation of Harper Lee’s hugely influential novel. Every fan has their favorite scenes, but for my family, the film has been nothing less than a tradition—we’ve watched it almost annually since its release, recited lines to each other, and marveled at its perfection and continuing impact. My sister sometimes calls me "Boo" when she telephones, and I often ask "What in the Sam Hill are you doing?" when she confuses me, as Scout does to the beleaguered Walter Cunningham in the film. Since everyone in my family has completely different taste in movies, for all of us to feel the same affection for Mockingbird says something about the film’s ability to move a vast and diverse audience. And if Gregory Peck’s weary-wise performance as Atticus is the film’s soul, surely Mary Badham’s as Scout is its heart. For my money, no performance by a child actor has ever been so vividly rendered, capturing the frustrations, complexities and slow-dawning revelations of a youngster in tough times with rare intuition and depth. Since Badham had been an enigma for many years (she only made a few films as a youngster before retiring from the business), I jumped at the chance to talk with her when she came to St. Louis for the Metro Theater Company’s adaptation of Mockingbird and a weekend of special screenings of the film. How often do you get a chance to meet one of your favorite characters from any work of art?

Of course, I’m not sitting down with a cherubic, overalls-wearing tomboy, but rather an affable 56-year-old woman who’s done this sort of thing countless times. You don’t create an iconic character on celluloid without being obliged to talk about it forever after. Badham is just fine with that. The novel and the film’s legacy invite the sort of scrutiny she’s used to.

"This has impacted people all over the world," she said, regarding the whole Mockingbird phenomenon. (I was trying hard to control my giddiness, and listen closely. Mary Badham, the one and only Scout, right before me!) "I just got back from Russia, I went over for the State Department for The Big Read," she continued. "It’s wonderful. I tell people constantly, this is not just a black and white 1930s issue. This book touches on family issues, social issues, women’s issues, racial issues. The whole nine yards. And everything that’s important about the way we need to live our lives, and the way we need to think about our culture and our country, it’s all there."

She’s addressing the book’s more controversial aspects, of course. Mockingbird may have been told through the eyes of children, but its unflinching portrayal of hateful prejudice and familial dysfunction in the depression-era South was incendiary, getting the book banned regularly from some schools and libraries in more reactionary, far right circles. To say it struck a nerve would be an understatement—the use of the "N" word with regard to the victimized Tom Robinson still bothers plenty of folks today.

"Let’s face it," said Badham, "bigotry and racism and hatred and ignorance haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve just changed their clothes, that’s all. So it’s all things that we need to pay attention to. We need to work toward making ourselves better. Getting our education system fixed. Getting our families fixed first, education second. We’ve really got to get control of all those things."

Badham’s voice is clear, soft-spoken but matter of fact—she’s had years to think about such issues, and as the primary ambassador for all things Mockingbird these days (Gregory Peck died in 2003, and Harper Lee is notoriously reclusive), she likely feels compelled to discuss the story’s underlying themes when interviewed. She’s well aware, though, of how beloved the 1962 Robert Mulligan-directed movie has become.

"It’s pretty amazing. There’s families that sit and watch this film every year. (I nod, knowingly.) It’s an annual event that they do, like, before Christmas or during fall. Fall seems to be the choice of times when most people do it. But there are whole families that just gather around and watch it."

What did Badham remember most about the experience of shooting To Kill a Mockingbird? After all, it was a long time ago, and other than one or two projects, she essentially left acting behind after the mid 1960s.

"Oh, mostly just having fun," she said. "We just had a ball! We played a lot, we laughed a lot. It wasn’t like work. We had good times. Our wonderful director, Bob Mulligan, who we just lost—he made it so easy. He really did. It was great because all these guys had small children they were dealing with at home at that time. So they made it easy because they knew how to communicate with children."

Badham had no prior acting experience before this film, and when asked about Mulligan’s ability to elicit such naturalistic performances from her and co-star Phillip Alford, who played Jem, she credits his "real down to earth" style.

"One of the things that made him such a fabulous director is that he would get down to our level. He’d literally squat down and talk to us, face to face, like two adults talking. I never remember him talking down to us. It was always just, okay, here’s the deal…here’s what we’re gonna do. And that’s what we did. It was great fun."

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Were there a lot multiple takes for pivotal scenes in the film?

"Oh sure," she said. "Whenever you’re shooting a film, you wanna get different angles, so you can cut things together. But I had a particular problem, because I not only knew my lines, but I knew everybody else’s. Who knew about timing, and all the pauses you’re supposed to have for thought? If I thought somebody was struggling, I would sit there and mouth the lines. Bob would say ‘Cut! Now dear," she says, laughing, ‘this is bad. We can see your mouth moving. You’re on film, so please don’t do that!’ Poor Phillip, it used to make him crazy. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for that."

So she still keeps in touch with Alford?

"Oh yeah. I’m closer to Phillip than I am to my real brothers. He’s just so funny. I wish he could be here tonight. He would’ve loved it, but he’s on another job."

Naturally, we have to talk about working with the great Gregory Peck. The late actor won the Oscar for his indelible performance as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who must balance the demands of raising two children in a small southern town with his duties in a thankless local case. Badham toured with Peck during his one-man show in the ’90s, and she always drew wild applause when Peck introduced her.

"We had a fabulous relationship that lasted right up until before his death," she said. "I was up to the house just a few weeks before. His whole family has been just so lovely through the years. They’ve been a great source of comfort for me. I lost my parents very early. My mom died three weeks after I graduated from high school, and my dad died, like, two years after I got married, and I got married when I was 21. So to have that kind of a role model was wonderful. He really imprinted on me some basic things, of getting a good education, of working hard, coming to work for pay or doing your job well. It was nothing for me to pick up the phone and he’d be like, ‘Hi kiddo, how are things going?’ When you’re living in a trailer in Loachapoka, Alabama, in the middle of a field, getting blown away by tornadoes, it’s kind of a comforting thing to have Gregory Peck call you on the phone and go, ‘How ya doing, kiddo?’ He was just so awesome."

It’s well-known how many people have credited Peck’s turn as Atticus for their own interest in entering the legal profession. Rarely has a lawyer been portrayed on film with such dignity, grace and unwavering moral clarity. Badham nods her head.

"Absolutely. When we were on the road in his one-man show, I could not tell you the number of people in the audience that said either they became a lawyer or their daughter, or their son or some member of their family became a lawyer because of his role. And they still use it in law schools. They teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Which I think is wonderful!"

These days, Badham is doing quite a bit of "teaching" of the book’s themes herself—she travels the world doing presentations, introducing screenings of the film, answering questions from endless fans and admirers. She works as an art restorer and college testing coordinator, and lives in Virginia with her husband. She’s the mother of two. And although acting lost its appeal for her long ago—her only other notable appearances besides Mockingbird included This Property is Condemned (opposite Natalie Wood) and Let’s Kill Uncle, both in 1966, and the final episode of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series—Badham clearly enjoys promoting the legacy of one of American culture’s most influential and important works. There may be serious themes to discuss, but fans are reverent, sometimes awestruck when they learn that the woman who portrayed Scout is here. They’re watching us talking, waiting for a chance to say, yet again, what the film has meant to them. I try to ask a couple of final questions about how Badham got the role (her actress mom brought her to the audition) and how she delivered such an amazing performance when she’d never acted before. After all, she was the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar for supporting actress at that time.

"I didn’t know anything; I was just this dumb little kid from Alabama," said Badham. "You have to understand, the script and the lighting was so close to my real life"

And then we’re interrupted…a camera crew is waiting to prep Badham for her next interview. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon with me—my mother. Mom had the unbelievable experience of attending a local screening of To Kill a Mockingbird shortly after its release with Harper Lee herself, and their mutual friend Mae McClevey, a woman from Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Alabama, who somehow ended up with a teaching stint in Webster Groves, and somehow became friends with my mother. Badham was stunned to hear this, and for a few additional moments I watch her talking to Mom about it. So even though I still had a question or two about Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his unforgettable film debut) and Jem and the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score and how something about the work of art we call To Kill a Mockingbird transcends its medium, and profoundly affects everyone who grew up with it personally and everyone who still discovers it today, and how they just don’t make ’em like that anymore—even though I could’ve talked with the divine Mary Badham much, much longer, I’m grinning from ear to ear. I got to hang out with "Scout" for awhile, and express my appreciation for the acting gift she gave us, and to thank her for one of the few movies able to unite my often combative family. To Kill a Mockingbird would still be garnering attention without Badham’s tireless efforts. But it’s immensely reassuring to know that Scout is still out there on the trail, talking, interacting with folks, and asking what in the Sam Hill is still going on in this world… | Kevin Renick

Read Kevin’s review of the play here

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