A hero in real life too
He epitomised moral strength, traditional virtues, liberal humanitarianism and courage in adversity on screen and off it too. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN remembers Hollywood star Gregory Peck who died recently.
"Spellbound" with Ingrid Bergman.
WHEN the criminal stalker terrorises the wife and daughter of lawyer Sam Bowden who put him behind bars, the victim sets a trap to kill him in the swamps. The final shot is not fatal. Bowden explains that lifetime imprisonment is worse punishment than quick death. But you wonder: can a man who reflects gentlemanliness in every stance, glance and word as Bowden does, commit murder at all?
"Cape Fear" may be imitation Hitchcock. But the sheer presence of Gregory Peck (snidely termed "brooding American gothic") overcomes its outdated histrionics, overdone suspense and overt narrative. Without losing his star lustre, and with no nuances in his acting, Peck makes the character come alive in flesh, blood, and family commitment. You know from the moment you are introduced to his voice in the courtroom, that the speaker has no mean or cowardly bone in him. Dark-haired, loose-limbed, spare-framed, keen-eyed, he stands for the heroism unleashed by extraordinary circumstances in the ordinary citizen.
Like James Stewart, all his life Peck remained an adored star and a cherished human being. Friends remember how he took in Ava Gardner's housekeeper and dog when the actress died, and how he remained a lifelong friend to the nine-year-old who played his daughter in "To Kill a Mocking Bird". Who can forget his insistence on top billing for debutante Audrey Hepburn in the evergreen "Roman Holiday" predicting, "Otherwise we shall look foolish when she wins the Oscar".
From the start the actor refused to sign long-term studio contracts because he wanted roles that promoted his values. He could produce an anti-Vietnam war film, or urge gun control. "Refuse to patronise excessively violent films," he told audiences. The winner of major honours (Jean Hersholt Humanitarian, Cecil B. De Mille, Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards, French Legion of Honour, Golden Globes, Oscar) he donated much of his award money to worthy institutions. He served the community as President of the American Cancer Institute and the National Council for the Arts, founded the La Jolla theatre company in his hometown. Ready to flout prejudice, he presented awards for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation saying, "Silly that something so simple has to be fought for!"
Squiring the princess around town ... with Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday".
Friends and fans did not see much difference between the man and his roles, almost all of which emphasised the ideals he prized: moral strength, traditional virtues, liberal humanitarianism and courage in adversity. With notable exceptions ("The Omen", "Moby Dick", "Boys from Brazil") Peck chose to play forceful men, masculine as they come, but chivalrous and tender. Peck died at age 87 (June 12), enjoying undimmed stardom from his second film "The Keys of the Kingdom" (1944), where he shaped A.J. Cronin's Spartan Scottish missionary to life. But he had known shadows. At age five, his parents divorced, leaving Eldred Gregory with his grandmother. His comforts came from a little dog that followed him everywhere, and frequent visits to the movies with Grandma. He was to undergo divorce in 1954 from Finnish born first wife Greta, whom he had once described to a co-actress as his ideal woman. A son was to commit suicide. Another son was to fight in Vietnam.
Young Gregory imbibed a sense of discipline and social commitment at St. John's Military Academy, Los Angeles. As a pre-medical student, when injury prevented him from being oarsman in the University's racing team, he took up a stage role "for a lark". He did badly, but learnt that acting was "connected with the things I was interested in literature, drama, writing, self expression".
A career switch found him at the Neighbourhood Playhouse, New York. Debut in - "The Morning Star" led to screen testing in vain for David O. Selznik. Three years later he was nominated for his first Oscar in "The Keys of the Kingdom". The 1940s brought hits like "The Yearling" where he played the stern patriarch in rural America; contacts with major directors King Vidor's "Duel in the Sun", and Elia Kazan in "Gentleman's Agreement", where Peck was Oscar-nominated again for his stance against anti-Semitism. Acclaimed by hardened scribes "Twelve O' Clock High" failed to go beyond a fourth Oscar nomination. In 1945, Hitchcock's "Spellbound", paired him with Ingrid Bergman. Despite a dream sequence by Salvador Dali, it was too stolid to be of the master's best.
In the decades to come Gregory Peck was to essay many genres, from the Biblical "David and Bathsheba" to westerns ("The Big Country", "Mackenna's Gold"), war dramas ("Pork Chop Hill", "The Guns of Navarone"), Neville Shute's apocalypse ("On the Beach"), sci-fi ("Marooned"), horror ("The Omen") and character studies Scott Fitzgerald in "Beloved Infidel", General MacArthur in "Macarthur". Active through the 1980s and 1990s on television series and films (including a Martin Scorcese sequel to "Cape Fear"), he was narrator for documentaries and talked about his experiences in colleges and small theatres. The 1999 documentary "Conversations with Gregory Peck" reveals his charm, gallantry and insouciance, in clips, reminiscences, and quips to audience queries.
(Above and right) The one that got him an Oscar ... as Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird".
Many fans disclosed they became lawyers because of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). A woman had searched for a husband with the qualities epitomised in Finch. (Characteristically, the actor wanted to meet the winner!) Peck's own favourite, this film gave the actor a role at once low key and explosive, as small town lawyer Atticus Finch becomes the community's conscience keeper, even as he rams himself against its feudal, racial prejudices. An abiding friendship with author Harper Lee (Finch was based on her father) was sparked by her remark, "You have a pot belly just like my daddy," and Peck's retort, "Harper, that's great acting!" When he walked up the aisle to collect his Oscar for the role, his hand was clutching Lee's gift her father's pocket watch.
Regrets? "I've been fighting all my career to be less earnest and less sincere," he laughed. "Any comedy that came to me had Cary Grant's thumbprints on it." Peck had a sense of humour, "Otherwise such perfection would be unbearable," said a co-star. The hilarious scene in "Roman Holiday"' where he sticks his hand into the mouth of the ancient "truth testing" figure, and pretends that it is bitten off, was improvised on the spot to scare young Audrey in real life.
"He was kind hearted, even to the paparazzi!" a friend exclaimed. Didn't he find his second wife of 48 years in a journalist, when he persuaded Veronique Passani to lunch with him in Paris? Learning later that her reluctance to meet him was over having to cancel an interview with Albert Schweitzer in Sartre's home, unfazed Peck declared, "You made a good choice, kiddo!"
Audrey Hepburn had said it all in her 1992 tribute, recalling how she made her Hollywood debut "opposite Gregory Peck, the beautiful, quiet, gentle hero of countless marvellous movies. In my innocence, I thought he'd be just like that. He was."
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