Universal Pictures is commemorating its Centenary year with a festival of classic films at Sydney's iconic State Theatre. On Sunday August 12, the festival continues with an afternoon screening of the quintessential parable of tolerance, To Kill A Mockingbird, in the film's own anniversary year.
Produced 50 years ago by Alan J. Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by eventual Oscar winner Horton Foote. Set in depression-era Alabama, and based on author Harper Lee's own childhood growing up in Monroeville, the classic story centres around lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in the role that defined his career), who takes on a prejudiced legal system to exonerate Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), an African-American man falsely accused of rape. Mary Badham played the iconic role of Scout Finch, and became the youngest Academy Award nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Badham was only 10-years-old when she started production of the film on the back lot of Universal Studios in Los Angeles. An Alabama native with a mother in community theatre, Badham was natural fit for the role. “I was such a tomboy growing up,” she admits. “I didn't really relate to girls. Still, I'd rather go dig in the dirt than getting dressed up.”
At the time, the first-time screen actor had no real idea of the power behind the source material. “I was too young and I was very naïve,” she remembers. “I'm not even sure that I knew what the film was about or if we got complete scripts. I didn't know anything about movies or movie stars. I just went along with the program. When all of this came down, as was going to happen, it was just one day at a time, you just get up and go to work.”
Director Robert Mulligan was attentive in his approach to Badham and her young cohorts, Philip Alford (Jem Finch) and John Megna, who played Dill Harris (in a role inspired by Lee's childhood neighbour, Truman Capote).
“He was so patient,” Badham recalls. “He was one of the best directors we ever had in California. He would get down at eye-level. He would squat down and talk to us. He didn't talk to us like children. He basically would set up the scene for us and let us do the scene. If he needed to tweak it, he would tweak it. He made a game out of it. He made it really fun.”
Badham has fond memories of her time in production and recollects how designer Henry Bumstead – who won an Oscar for his work on the film – developed the set through a series of photographs of Monroeville as well as importing houses from the surrounding Los Angeles area. “They were tearing down houses for the stadium in California that were period 1920s and '30s homes,” says Badham. “He bought them and had them shipped over to the studios. He drew up plans for the village and then had it built.”
Peck, who Badham still calls Atticus, remained her friend and mentor up until his death in 2003. “Of course, Atticus really stepped up to the plate,” she says. “He was wonderful at checking up on me and making sure I was studying and making sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. He was a father figure. He would visit with me when he was on the East Coast when possible and I would always go out to the house and visit with them with I was out there. It was really a wonderful relationship. And dear Brock Peters… We were all very close. They were great role models in my life.”
Fifty years on, Badham maintains an irrevocable connection to the character of Scout and the story itself. “Mockingbird has been a very strong influence in my life. It took me out of Alabama and let me see another way of living,” she says. “What you see in Mockingbird is very much the way Alabama was when I was growing up. Women were to be seen but not heard. So were children. Servants weren't even supposed to be heard. That whole social structure was still in place when I was still a little girl. Once I'd gone to California and seen the way the rest of the world was living, I was not able to go back to being put in a box. I wasn't going to be told who my friends were based on the colour of their skin or what religion they were or anything else. I wanted to be friends with people because they were nice people. It shaped my life. I just thank God I had the parents I did. They always put my well bring first. Everyone around me in the professional world loved me and bent over backwards to take care of me. My father was very much an Atticus. He was an excellent businessperson. He really protected me, right til the end. I feel very grateful.”