Pete Hammond

“What are the chances that this day in Florida George Zimmerman would be arrested? What are  the chances that we sit in Beverly Hills on this day to see To Kill A Mockingbird,  and these kinds of tensions still exist in our country?” asked host Tavis Smiley during his introductory remarks Wednesday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 50th anniversary screening and L.A. premiere of Universal’s flawless digital restoration of its 1962 classic Oscar winner. As Academy members, press, industryites and the public gathered (Academy events guru Ellen Harrington who also conducted the post-screening Q&A said it sold out within two days of their announcement), the Trayvon Martin murder case was heating up in a scenario eerily reminiscent in some ways of Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird and its film version directed by Robert Mulligan.

Although the story deals with heroic lawyer Atticus Finch,  as played by Gregory Peck in his Oscar winning performance, defending an innocent black man (Brock Peters) against the inflammatory accusations  of a young white woman in the Jim Crow south of the 1930s , it also a movie about many other things including the love of a father and is one of the best, if not the best, film about childhood ever committed to celluloid. Mary Badham who was 10 years old at the time she played Scout was in attendance and received a standing ovation when she was introduced after the film for a Q&A along with civil rights attorney Connie Rice and Terrence Roberts who in 1957 at the age of 15 was one of nine students who tried to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Certainly the irony of Zimmerman’s arrest just a few hours earlier was not lost on anyone in the room or at the pre-screening reception, demonstrating that a Hollywood film a half-century old about events 80 years ago can still be as relevant and important, perhaps even more so, today. Peck’s widow Veronique, his four kids and three grandchildren were also in attendance for the screening of the movie which also played at the White House last week and was introduced there and on a later USA TV screening Saturday by President Obama.

In his remarks Smiley, the PBS talk show host and documentarian, said “the film entertains, empowers, elevates and inspires discourse in this country” while pointing out the virtues of its core humanity and plea for racial tolerance — and that Atticus Finch was named the greatest movie hero of all time by the American Film Institute. “I saw this movie more times than I can count growing up as a member of the only African American family for miles around,” he said.

During the Q&A Roberts said, “its contemporary themes are so current it’s as if it was made yesterday”. Badham who was the youngest actor ever to be nominated for an Oscar at the time recalled that her home town of Birmingham, Alabama was just too risky to shoot in at the time so the film was actually all shot on the backlot of Universal Studios. Years ago when she went back to visit the streets where they shot she said she barely recognized it. A rogue security guard went ballistic one day and torched the sets so only a small fragment remains.

Released in December 1962, the film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture which it almost certainly would have won were it not for another landmark film that swept it away, Lawrence Of Arabia. It did manage to win three Oscars including Best B&W Art Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay (by Horton Foote) and Actor for Peck whose impact in the role was so strong it denied Lawrence’s Peter O’Toole the Oscar that almost certainly would have been his on his first try (after 7 additional Best Actor noms he has yet to win, though did get an Honorary Oscar). A competitive year, indeed, but Peck clearly deserved it. Mockingbird is the first to be seen of Universal’s 13 classic titles getting the A-1 restoration treatment in honor of the studio’s centennial. They promise to unveil the whole baker’s dozen before the end of the year.

At the reception before the screening I spoke with Randy Haberkamp who that same day had just been promoted to the Academy’s newly created position of managing director of programming, education and preservation. Unveiling this stunning digital transformation of Mockingbird was a great way to celebrate. He told me he wants to expand the Academy’s reach and get a greater public awareness of all the things they do, and that includes the three panels he is overseeing for the Academy at this weekend’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. He also confirmed the Academy’s annual Monday night themed summer film classic series this year will be devoted to the wonders of widescreen movies, a 70MM series that will celebrate movies made and exhibited on film, BIG film, giving the public one of the last chances to see these classics in an undigitized format before the industry completely changes over to digital and locks up all these vintage prints permanently in their archives. Harrington told me the Academy is still dedicated to showing as much as they possibly can in the film format but clearly ‘the times they are a changin’.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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