to Gregory Peck" By Jay Woelfel|
Sometimes nice guys finish last and it's a good thing.
The only race you want to finish last in is the race of life to the finish line of death. This being the case, it can be said that Gregory Peck, by all accounts a nice guy, did finish last when he died this week. Virtually all of the other stars of his era have long since crossed the finish line, and although Mickey Rooney would argue with me, Peck was the last
of the classic Hollywood stars.
By the 1940's the technical aspects of filmmaking reached a level where picture and sound quality were both standardized and polished enough for films from that time to still speak to us as a modern audience without having to be aware of the limits of the tools available to make films.
One thing that is often forgotten today is that the biggest stars of that era were not men, but women: the term star was in fact created by studios for women. Of course males dominated the western genre and John Wayne became known as The Duke, a title he probably retains as the star with the longest career as a star of any actor or actress.
Gregory Peck became a star with his second feature film, unlike other survivors from the era like Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston whose careers did begin in the later 1940's but whose real star periods were later. The 1940's are interesting in retrospect in that a number of the male stars were hardly beefcake by any standards: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, not really a pretty face among them. Peck once equated himself to being like the Richard Gere of his time. This kind of puzzles me and I hope it flatters Richard Gere. Peck was more in the handsome mold of say Clark Gable, Cary Grant or, Gary Cooper.
Peck's screen persona was more like Spencer Tracy, who unlike Peck is more famous for playing a strong nice guy on screen than actually being either off screen. This persona and type is what could best de described as the good American male. Quiet but human strength, integrity and decency were the attraction to these men and the characters they played. More so I'd say this of Peck who seemed to be a good person and good man in a way that seemed more of the real world, than Tracy who seemed at times to be superhumanly humane. Peck's contemporary Henry Fonda was another great human figure of the screen with some of the same type of appeal.
I remember an interview with Peck when in recalling his early pre-film career days in New York City as a starving actor how great it was when he had enough money to buy, as a treat, a box of pancake mix and how good they tasted. This to me says something about the nature of Peck the man who remembered this even after many better treats had come his way.
In death the press here in Los Angeles has been quick to claim Peck as being a true Californian from start to finish. I don't argue this point, but perhaps the ways in which he fits into that mold best is that as a Hollywood star he did have to survive one failed marriage and the tragic suicide of one of his children.
Peck, trained for stage acting as a method actor, was not always a good actor. In fact, like other method actors Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman, he's bad in his first Hitchcock film, Spellbound. Though a success upon release the film has not aged well. Peck's role is of the type that it would take Hitchcock a number of years to find the perfect actor for, that actor being Anthony Perkins as the lovable but dangerous psycho in Psycho. If you try to imagine Peck in Psycho you'd see that it isn't the type role Peck was born to play. Peck is better in his other later Hitchcock film, the Paradine Case, though that movie is compromised in other ways I'd say it is as under-rated as Spellbound is over-rated.
Peck is also strangely, almost good, in the otherwise nearly great film of Moby Dick. Peck later refused to allow parts of the film to be shown in the film Jaws, director Steven Spielberg came away from the experience feeling that Peck just wasn't proud of the film.
Peck's first big acting role on stage was in Moby Dick, which he said he was bad in though he caught the acting bug once and for all while by doing it. The Patrick Stewart starring mini-series version of Moby Dick marked his last filmed role. He won and award for the role and said he found the award to be "encouraging." This is a typical view of Peck's modesty.
There may however be another reason that Peck had mixed feelings about his film version of Moby Dick. You can puzzle over this yourself, if you read John Huston's excellent autobiography, An Open Book. Huston, who directed Moby Dick, loved Peck and thought he was one of the great good people in the business, but then something went wrong with their relationship, possibly something involving some offense Huston gave to Peck's wife. Peck without warning stopped the friendship and Huston never knew what went wrong. Later on Peck tried to resume the friendship, but Huston said too much time had passed. I wonder if the two men ever spoke about what happened or made up, there is no record anywhere that they did.
At any rate that's the closest thing to something bad you're liked to read about Gregory Peck as a person.
I suppose being Stalwart, or stiff as some critics called him from time to time, is what Peck came to stand for. This is true in the best sense of the word and certainly his Oscar winning, and recent AFI winning role in to Kill a Mockingbird exemplifies perhaps the perfect type of role Gregory Peck will remain known for. It's one of those nearly perfect films and he is great in it.
Of course the media must create a handle to attach to Peck in order to simplify his career, but reducing his career to what his screen persona became is selling him short. He in fact resisted the long-term studio contracts that were the way Hollywood was run at the time and I think this allowed him to try many types of roles and he was good and or great in just as many of them even though the critics at large will continue to embrace, as they always do, only what they themselves created and so love most.
Feel free to see To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone again or first time if you haven't seen them, but I urge you to see some of the Peck films you haven't seen or haven't seen lately as you think back on his career.
Valley of Decision. This film was obviously made to cash-in on the success of How Green was My Valley, but Peck and Greer Garson have great chemistry and the film is in some ways a warmer version of The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Yearling. A wonderful children's film with Peck as an ideal father figure. The film is one of the best of the child and their pets type of films, like Old Yeller. This was in a time before E.T. came out teaching kids the dubious lesson that, no, death isn't really an issue you have to worry about or deal with. I'm not urging you to hate E.T., but I am urging you to see The Yearling.
Twelve O' Clock High. Peck should have won the academy award he was nominated for in this film. He plays a commanding WWII flight officer who ultimately cares too much for his men and memorably cracks up under the pressures when he tries to assume all the responsibility on his own shoulders: a surprisingly undated view of war.
The Snows of Killimanjaro. One of the best of the bunch of what are generally considered to be flawed film adaptations of Ernest Hemmingway's works. Peck is critically wounded on a safari and spends a night, which could be his last, reflecting on his life in flashbacks and searching for the meaning of life, which is tied up in the riddle of Mount Killimanjaro in Africa. Peck's sweaty dark-night-of-the-soul performance along with those of his romantic co-stars Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner make this film work along with Peck's frequent director Henry King and composer Bernhard Herrmann. Successful at the time of its release this film is ripe for restoration and revival, it was edited down from a longer running time before release and is currently available on DVD only in full screen boot leggy looking versions. Though dated technically this film deserves another look and features one of Peck's most surprising and explosive moments as an actor, judged by some to be over the top, in a key wartime flashback sequence.
The Big Country. Though really best enjoyed on the big screen, rather than on DVD or television, Peck's character here is I think most true to Peck's own personality. He plays a sea captain who moves to the west and encounters the passions and prejudices and negative bravado of the American cowboy. He is constantly challenged to prove himself a "real man" publicly, but is only interested in proving this to himself when by himself and not grandstanding openly when it's expected of him. Because this means that his character seems openly and publicly weak, this would seem to be an almost unplayable character trait especially for a star to play, but Peck pulls in off in outstanding fashion. To me one of the great, and great role models, for a hero in all of film and one of Peck's best films.
Cape Fear. The original version, rather than the overheated and overly Catholic-guilt -ridden Martin Scorsese remake. Robert Mitchum plays one of filmdom's most memorable villains and Peck as the hero makes the "No, I won't kill you." ending work despite what the audience might expect. Later films of this type, and there have been many imitators since, perhaps the most successful being Death Wish, always end immorally with the hero becoming a killer too. Mitchum and Peck's extended fight and chase sequence at the end of the film is still memorable. The DVD has an interview with Peck who talks about his no nonsense approach to what could be dangerous physical action required in a film role like this one. (The other Peck DVD with an interview with him on it is the excellent The Guns of Navorone.)
Billy Two Hats. This is the film to see if you think that Peck was in any way limited or unable to play a part other than his well known and justly famous screen image.
MacArthur. An underrated film because it is not as good as its model film, Patton, but Peck is excellent and the film itself tells an interesting and important story, relevant now more than even in the post Iraq war days, of MacArthur's victories and shortcomings during and after WWII. It of course also allows Peck to read several of MacArthur's own wonderful speeches. There was a horrible expanded network television version of this film that is to be avoided, but the original version is available on DVD.
As you'll see in these and many other of his films, Peck looked and acted just as much at home in many fine westerns and war films as he did in many contemporary urban. For one thing he remained convincing as a leading man, frequently as the romantic leading man, in the 1940's, 1950's, 1960's and into the 1970's. You won't find the kind of embarrassing moments in Peck's career that you'll find in some of Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglases' careers when they were just too old for the part.
In fact Peck retired briefly form acting in the early 1970's and produced a couple of films which he himself described as not being very successful, before then taking a part that was a comeback role for him in The Omen. This was a role that these other two actors, and everyone else in town had turned down. This film, conceived let's face it, as an Exorcist rip off, was a good film, a landmark gore film, and most importantly a huge hit which then lengthened Peck's leading man career It also had Heston and Douglas afterwards to agree to do the bad Omen rip offs (The Awakening and The Fury respectively) in attempts to pump up there own careers. Heston is, by the way, excellent playing opposite Peck in The Big Country.
Peck would occasionally struggle with an unconvincing accent in a film here and there and the general critical opinion is that he couldn't play bad guys. But I defend his role as Joseph Mengele in the uneven but generally successful film of Ira Levin's cloning and nazi thriller, The Boys From Brazil (especially successful in the DVD version which includes the book's original ending) and again, he is totally convincing role as a quirky Scotsman in the too little seen western Billy Two Hats.
I suppose the final great role in a great movie evaded Gregory Peck. There was talk that he would be in a remake of the Ingmar Bergman classic Wild Strawberries and this could have been such a part. But maybe Peck realized that this is a great film already and probably couldn't be topped. I would have liked to see him try and certainly as an actor he could have done it. I don't know enough about the reasons this never happened to get too worked up about it. There are so many reasons that good movies don't get made and that bad movies do that it is part of a whole other discussion.
But Peck did do good work in various sized roles for film and television until fairly recently and he resisted the great monetary temptation of being in a string of lousy roles in lousy movies. I am involved in a possible feature project that the money people wanted Peck to be in, saying that if we could get him they would pay whatever he wanted. This was a role that Charlton Heston had, at the time, agreed to play and the response from the money people was that Peck was worth more. This to me says that if he had wanted to Peck could have appeared, as Heston did recently, in a straight to video Jean-Claude Van Damme film. This is something we can be grateful Peck avoided.
Peck, as many obituaries have properly pointed out, remained active right up until his death in causes he cared about off screen. I was lucky enough to attend one night of his long running Reading series that he created to help raise money to save the main branch of the Los Angeles Library. He would host the evening and invite celebrity guests to come down and read out loud something they liked. Peck himself would occasionally read poetry or favorite works himself, but the night I was there the guests were Bruce Dern and Billy Bob Thorton. Dern was excellent, reading passages about the Donner party and a famous sportswriter's sign off address, Thorton on the other hand, was obviously nervous to be in the presence of Peck, who he called his hero. Peck introduced each "performance, " and organized and coached the actors before hand. Thorton said that Peck had told him, "Billy Bob, you don't have to read so fast." Well, Thorton still read it too fast, but the whole evening I kept glancing across the room at Peck, who even in silence and old age dominated the room as he attentively listened with the rest of us. I don't blame Thorton for being nervous, I stood next to Peck afterwards in line at a nearby restaurant and even supported by a cane he towered over me. I was too cowed to even speak to him.
This reading series has gone on for years, almost totally out of the spotlight and done purely to benefit the library. I hope the series continues though it obviously won't be the same with out its founder Gregory Peck.
Almost exactly two years ago I attended the Los Angeles Chamber orchestras yearly silent film night. Peck was supposed to be the host. For health reasons it seems he could not attend, instead sending an apologetic message saying that at his age the inconveniences, which kept him from coming, were too numerous to mention. He had said the message should be read with humor. It signaled to me, and probably others there, that the end might be nearing for Gregory Peck, but it did so with typical and undue modesty.
Peck's films, some of which he had a hand in producing, remain behind as his most immediate legacy. The 1940's created what will always be known as the Hollywood film and Hollywood star and with the quiet end of Gregory Peck's long life, one of the most enduring and human of that eras gifts now belongs to the ages.