Monday, May 23, 2011

Required Viewing: 'Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird'

It was raining cats and dogs this weekend in New York, so it was the perfect chance to catch up on movies. We saw three in three days (more on "Midnight in Paris" and "Children of God" TK), but Sunday's selection -- "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird" -- was my favorite by far. Like most Americans, "Mockingbird" was required reading when I was a kid -- Mr. McClellan's 10th grade English at Dobson High -- and I was instantly transfixed.

Writer/director Mary Murphy, a former CBS News producer, spent years putting this labor of love together, inspired after she re-read the classic book as adult. Knowing that a film about Lee, who has shunned the media for nearly 50 years, was impossible, Murphy instead decided to tell the story behind a novel that became an American classic. (You didn't think a 31-year-old airline reservations agent could suddenly turn out a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel without there being a good story behind it, did you?)

With rare cooperation from Nelle Harper Lee's friends and family, news footage, clips from the big-screen adaptation, and beautiful insights from the likes of Oprah Winfrey ("I wanted to be Scout. I thought I was Scout!"), Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash, James McBride and Mary Badham (who played Scout in the movie and offers adorable anecdotes from the set) -- plus audio from Harper Lee's last interview, given on radio in 1964 -- Murphy adds a new layer of insight and context to the book that historians agree was instrumental in helping fuel the civil rights movement. Particularly fun are the interviews with writer Diane McWhorter, who minces no words in her assessment of Monroeville, Alabama's two most famous residents: Lee, who she describes as "the conscience of the country" and Truman Capote, who she says "was probably a sociopath." (That's one of the kinder things she has to say about Truman!)

Murphy was on hand afterward for a spirited Q&A, the highlight of which was when she said she steered clear of Lee's sexuality -- the LGBT community has long claimed her as one of ours -- because she couldn't get any "concrete evidence" one way or another. (Lee should teach courses at the Learning Annex in leading a private life as a public person!) Murphy said that despite an unauthorized biography "concluding" that Lee was gay, her research showed that that conclusion was essentially based on the fact that Lee had a female roommate when she lived in New York and liked to golf(!). James McBride summed it up best when he said, “Harper Lee given us a gift in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and the best gift that we can give Harper Lee is to leave her alone.”

Indeed. But there's no reason fans can't enjoy "Hey, Boo" -- no mockingbirds were shot in the making of this film -- which leaves you feeling like you just attended a rapturous book-club meeting for your favorite childhood novel. (Are you listening, school teachers?)

The film is currently showing at The Quad in New York (info HERE).

You can pre-order the DVD HERE.

Mary McDonagh Murphy's companion book, "Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird," is available HERE. Murphy says it includes a huge chunk of anecdotes from Lee's younger sister Alice, whose screen time in the film had to be limited due to her distracting presence.


Tony (LT) said...

This is my favorite book, without a doubt, and its message is one I try to live by. I am so happy to see that this is going to be on DVD because the film would not likely come to a theater near me.

Commenting In Cold Blood said...

Truman capote might very well have a been a sociopath but he was also a much more talented writer.