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Gregory Peck: Icon of dignity and strength
Gregory Peck is past 80 now,
GREGORY PECK came to Cannes this summer (May 2000). As he walked up the red- carpeted stairs of the Film Festival's Palace, people said, here goes Atticus Finch, the Oscar-winning lawyer- character he portrayed almost four decades ago in ``To Kill A Mocking Bird''.
In fact, during an interview several years ago, Peck said that his fans had often told him that the role, in Harper Lee's monumental literary work, was their most favourite. Some had become advocates, encouraged by Finch's defence of a black man falsely accused of rape. The small-town lawyer in Alabama, a paragon of virtue and sensitivity and steely determination, became a hero to thousands in the early 1960s, when the release of the movie coincided with a civil rights movement in the South.
But Peck's cinematic glory includes many more memorable parts, which great directors framed together to create classics. The actor's first effort in 1943 , ``Days of Glory'' is significant because it helped him catch Hollywood's eye. However, he chose to remain an independent freelancer in a era when stars were virtually chattels of the big studios. This infuriated one of the most powerful men of those times, Louis Mayer of the MGM.
Yet, Peck sailed along unscathed. Born in 1916 in southern California to parents who split up soon after, Gregory sold newspapers and drove trucks as he schooled and majored in English literature from a university at Berkeley. It was there that he first looked at theatre, appearing in plays. His next step was Broadway, where he was spotted by a screenwriter, who offered Peck his first celluloid assignment.
It was the 1945 ``The Keys of the Kingdom'' that made him a heartthrob, but Alfred Hitchcock's ``Spellbound'' (with fascinating Ingrid Bergman) - where he plays an amnesiac and falls in love with his psychologist - gave him a certain aura that was hard to resist, especially since it came with a cocktail of dashing good looks and impeccable behaviour. Widely regarded as the most decent man in Hollywood, who became an icon of dignity and quiet strength, he remained free of angst.
Peck's screen image was not very different either. Well, most of the time. ``Gentleman's Agreement'' (1947), directed by no less a legend than Elia Kazan, has the actor starring as a writer, who, in the course of collecting material for an article against anti- Semitism, realises to his horror and disbelief that his own friends, apparently polished and cultured, hate Jews.
``Roman Holiday'' that came in 1953 charmed audiences all over the world. As a newspaper reporter, Peck finds a runaway princess in Rome and helps her feel the freshness of freedom and joy, away from her ``captive'' existence. Throwing aside a scoop and terrific story, he graciously lets love lead the way. If the Lion's Mouth of Truth in the Italian capital is, till this day, remembered as the spot where the young Audrey Hepburn looses her heart to Peck, his understanding and nobility at letting her go, when she has to, and with her a professional dream endure in the history of cinema as a high point.
This movie was important in Peck's personal life as well. At Paris, on his way to Rome, he met Veronique, then a cub reporter, who shot an arrow through his heart even while she was flooring him with questions. ``Six months later, when `Roman Holiday' was tied up, I returned to Paris for a vacation before going back home'', Gregory told an audience decades after the trip. ``I decided to call Veronique. We met for dinner that night, the next night and the next and the next...''.
In 1955, they married. For Peck, this was the second time; he had divorced Greta Rice in 1954. Veronique and Peck are still together, and they have two children, Cecilia and Anthony. Peck's two sons by his earlier marriage are living; one committed suicide.
And all these are narrated splendidly by Barbara Kopple, whose documentary, ``A Conversation with Gregory Peck'', was screened at Cannes recently (May 2000). It is engaging particularly because it works out the right balance between the actor and the man. It is touching when he talks about his dead son or Veronique, whom he describes as his soul mate, and these moments have been captured with finesse and feeling.
Kopple tells me that this non-fiction work (``I do not like the term, documentary'') might not have been made at all, but for Cecilia, who pushed the director into filming a one-man show which Peck usual held, where he answered questions from a small group. ``I got there, it was at Boston, and he was such an absorbing story-teller, so captivating, so funny, that I knew immediately that my job was going to be something bigger''.
Kopple says there was this woman who asked the most outrageous question. ``Excuse me, Mr. Peck. Did Sophia Loren have her clothes on during the shower scene in `Arabesque'? He looked at her and said, `More or less. But it was spectacular'. It was witty the way he tackled people.''
Kopple's interest was aroused. ``I wanted to know more about him, not just as an actor, but as a human being, as a father, as a husband.'' Since she knew Cecilia well, she enjoyed a privileged position, which she used to gather some bitter-sweet, some intimate moments from Peck's life. ``He was usually comfortable with us. I think he liked us. He trusted us. But, he is also a very private person, and never really wanted anybody to step inside. This time, of course, he knew he was doomed'', Kopple laughs.
``A Conversation with Gregory Peck'' reveals that the director managed to draw him out all right. ``He did talk to us about his son, who killed himself, and said that he might not have done it if he had not strived so hard. There were so many moments like these that said so much about him.''
Which probably endeared him to Kopple, and ``I never felt intimidated by the fact that here was a colossus loved by the world and whose integrity and affection are so similar to Finch's. I would say Peck the person is closest to that character. Indeed, my favourite movie is `To Kill a Mocking Bird'. It is a picture of social justice, of ethics and morals even though times were hard. It shows him as an adorable father''.
Kopple has more anecdotes to narrate, each gripping in its own way. Peck's concern about the American gun culture and his earlier stand on the Vietnam war add another dimension to a man we all thought was only pleasing and romantic, charming and courteous. That Peck is something more than all this is what Kopple's footage unfolds, and much to our enrichment and enjoyment.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 16 2000)