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Harper Lee has become one of the most fascinating literary conundrums of recent times, as reclusive as she is famous. Born in Alabama, she won a Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, her 1960 novel that was universally acknowledged as a masterwork and inspired the classic 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck.
Despite the occasional public appearance, Lee has not granted an interview in more than four decades. More importantly, she never wrote another book, forever guaranteeing her literary reputation and provoking endless, J.D. Salinger-like speculation.
Mary McDonagh Murphy’s documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird occasionally borders on hagiography, but it nonetheless provides wonderful insights into the book’s social and literary importance as well as its author’s personality.
After its limited theatrical release, the film, whose title stems from one of the novel’s most famous lines, should find its biggest audiences on cable and public television.
We learn that Lee, who worked as an airline reservation clerk in New York City, was able to write the book through an act of generosity: a well-heeled Greenwich Village couple gave her enough money to take a year off so that she could devote herself to writing full-time.
Her autobiographical tale of lawyer Atticus Finch and his courageous decision to represent a black man amidst the racial prejudice of the 1930s Deep South became an instant sensation. Its lasting impact is illustrated here by moving testimonials from such disparate novelists as Wally Lamb, Rick Bragg, Richard Russo, Scott Turow and mystery writer James Patterson, as well as figures ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Mike Brokaw to civil rights leader Andrew Young.
Actress Mary Badham, who played the pivotal role of Scout, reminisces about the making of the 1962 film. We also learn that Rock Hudson lobbied hard for the role of Atticus, which was first offered to Spencer Tracy before it finally went to Gregory Peck.
Lee herself is conspicuously absent from the proceedings, save for archival footage and excerpts from radio interviews from the mid 1960s. But we do hear from many of her friends, associates and relatives, including her 99-year-old sister Alice, a still practicing lawyer.
A fascinating segment details Lee’s lifelong friendship with Truman Capote, her childhood best friend and the model for the character of Dill Harris. That relationship, depicted in the recent films Infamous and Capote, led to speculation that Capote had a hand in the writing of Mockingbird, an idea this film firmly dispels.
Most poignantly, Hey, Boo explores the issue of why Lee never wrote another novel, despite her claim decades ago that she was working on one. Several of the interview subjects offer possible explanations. But perhaps the most truthful one comes from Lee herself, who once said to a relative, “I haven’t anywhere to go but down.”
Opened May 13 (First Run Features)
No rating, 82 min.
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