To Kill a Mockingbird: Kobal Collection
Gary Susman
June 12, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here are five essential Gregory Peck performances

If there was one constant to Gregory Peck’s 50-year movie career, it was dignity. It was a character trait built into his granite jaw and booming voice. Nothing could tarnish it, not lurid overdirection (see: ”Duel in the Sun” or ”The Omen” — or rather, don’t), not soapy melodrama, to which he was ill-suited (like ”David and Bathsheba” or ”Beloved Infidel,” in which he played an adulterous and boozy F. Scott Fitzgerald), nor even his late-career attempts to stretch by playing profoundly cynical real-life characters (Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele in ”The Boys from Brazil,” cranky satirist Ambrose Bierce in ”Old Gringo.”) His abiding dignity made him a hero for all seasons, whether he wanted to be one or not.

Of course, if you’re going to be a movie role model, it helps to be ridiculously good looking and charismatic. Peck held the screen with moral authority and passionate intensity, but also with surprising reserves of charm. He was never a maverick, but he used his assets and limitations cannily enough to outlast almost every other icon created during Hollywood’s golden age. In the process, he created many indelible performances. Here are the five most essential:

Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) Peck plays a magazine writer who poses as a Jew to uncover rampant, institutional anti-Semitism in American life. The film seems dated now, if only because its moral seems to be: treat a Jew fairly because he may turn out to be Gregory Peck. Still, it was a daring topic at the time (his agent warned him that the movie could be a career killer, thus proving its point), and no one could work up a froth of righteous anger like Peck.

Twelve O’Clock High (1949) In one of the most-admired of all World War II dramas, deskbound general Frank Savage (Peck) is called in to boost the morale of a bomber squad during the early days of the air war against Germany. Instead, his merciless disciplinarian tendencies nearly lead to disaster. The film’s portrayal of the dynamics of military command earned it high marks for realism. Peck was sometimes criticized for his ramrod stiffness, but he uses it to his advantage here as the well-meaning martinet Savage.

Roman Holiday (1953) Everyone remembers this as Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar-winning film debut as a runaway princess zipping around Rome. Still, her companion is the brash, adventurous, dashing American reporter (Peck) who falls in love with the subject of his potential scoop. Doing a gloss on Clark Gable’s similar role in ”It Happened One Night,” Peck is not just a good-natured hunk armed with street smarts and easy wisecracks; he’s an ambassador for America, a one-man Marshall Plan, everything we’d like to imagine we are: strong, capable, funny, charming, savvy, and as noble as royalty in our own rough and common way.

Moby-Dick (1956) Peck didn’t play villains too often, so it’s a treat to see him pulling out all the stops, chewing the scenery like whale blubber, as the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Stomping around on his peg leg, squinting and aaarrrrghing, and bellowing in that magnificent, thunderous voice to rail at God and to drive his crew toward their doom, Peck finds a dark, obsessive side to his usual obstinate persistence. Conversely, because of his inherent authority, Peck turns the monomanical Ahab into a tragic hero.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) When the American Film Institute recently listed Peck’s Atticus Finch as the top movie hero of all time, many moviegoers scratched their heads. Atticus doesn’t save the planet, shoot any bad guys, or do much of anything that conventional movie heroes do. He doesn’t even win his big court case. Still, there’s no questioning his courage in defending a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman in the segregated South. Plus, he teaches his kids about tolerance, not so much by preaching but by his own example. In one of his quietest performances, Peck convinces you that it is indeed heroic to be a single dad who raises children to become principled adults amid a society of corruption and fear. For this most restrained and dignified performance, five-time Academy Award nominee Peck won his only Oscar.

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