|To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee.|
Once was enough
By Ed Rampell
One of the biggest, most enduring mysteries in American literature is why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another book after the smash success of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird? Her beloved novel was adapted into a movie only about two years after Lee’s bestseller was published (in contrast, it took Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged half a century-plus to make it to the big screen), and the extremely faithful film version won three Oscars, including for Horton Foote’s screenplay. And who can ever forget Gregory Peck’s sensitive, dignified Academy Award-winning depiction of Atticus Finch, the small town attorney who defends an innocent black man in the 1930s segregated South?
To Kill a Mockingbird captured the zeitgeist of the early 1960s’ Civil Rights movement, and catapulted the young Lee to fame and fortune. Yet she never wrote again. Why? In her documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' writer-director Mary Murphy sets out to find out the answer to that literary enigma and more, with clips from director Robert Mulligan’s 1962 movie, archival footage, original interviews and a trip down to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (called Maycomb in the novel).
Alas, as has been her practice since around 1964, Lee -- who is still alive and in her eighties -- remains camera shy. However, a slew of talking heads shed light on the importance and impact of To Kill a Mockingbird, and on Lee herself. The interviewees include Oprah Winfrey, authors such as Scott Turow and Anna Quindlen, Civil Rights leader Andrew Young, musician Roseanne Cash, former newsman Tom Brokaw, etc. However, the most intriguing interviews are with friends of Harper’s and most of all, with her 99-year-old sister Alice Lee.
Although the quirky, ancient Alice -- who still practices law at Monroeville -- is difficult to understand, especially for Yankee ears, she has much to say about her little sister, their small kid days, family life, Harper’s literary process, brush with fame and why she’s never published again. Alice probably comes the closest to revealing the secret of Harper’s perplexing, troubling decision.
In my opinion, this puzzle has much to do with Monroeville’s other fabled novelist, Truman Capote, who also happens to be depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird as Dill John Megna). Capote spent part of his childhood next door to the Lee household. Indeed, while Harper stubbornly refuses to get in front of the camera, she is portrayed by Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock in two films about Capote’s investigation of the murders he investigated for In Cold Blood, 2005’s Capote and 2006’s Infamous, respectively. Harper assisted Capote with his research in Kansas shortly before To Kill a Mockingbird was published.
Like her childhood friend, Harper relocated to New York, and Truman, who had already attained literary recognition, was helpful in getting To Kill a Mockingbird published. But according to the film, Capote later resented the fact that Harper won a Pulitzer and he didn’t. I suspect that the toll celebrityhood took on Truman and his talent played a major role in turning Harper away from the limelight. However, the experience of being lauded as a literary lioness also affected Harper’s creativity. Whether or not she did try to write another book, the success of To Kill a Mockingbird provided an annuity for her, so unlike the rest of we scribblers, Harper didn’t have to worry about trifles like, you know, earning a living and paying the rent.
Murphy’s documentary doesn’t delve into Harper’s private life. As far as we know she never married, and who knows her sexuality? Truman, of course, was gay, and Lee may have seen how being a celeb under a magnifying glass in a homophobic society adversely affected her childhood pal. Harper might have preferred not to live in a fishbowl and to retreat to the shadows. We have always thought that the tomboy Scout was supposed to be Harper, but perhaps the truth is that she has been more like the reclusive, elusive, eponymous Boo Radley (Robert Duvall’s first movie role).
In any case, this is a heartwarming, entertaining doc for lovers of literature in general, and of To Kill a Mockingbird in particular. Murphy pays the original novel and movie homage by showing how important both were to the Civil Rights movement and puts To Kill a Mockingbird into historical context -- especially as it was written by a young woman who had, once upon a time, grown up in the segregated South. Its tale of racism and injustice, amplified by Peck’s performance as the attorney Atticus who defends the wronged Tom Robinson (the moving Brock Peters), was the quintessential Civil Rights film of its day. In addition, Mary Badham’s badass portrayal of the tomboy Scout stands in stark contrast to the screen’s prim and proper Southern belles. I do declare, Murphy’s doc points out that in addition to striking a blow for equal rights for blacks, To Kill a Mockingbird also made an impact on the issue of gender equality.
Thank you, Harper Lee.