Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gregory Peck's Centennial

It was 100 years ago today, on April 5 1916, that Eldred Gregory Peck was born in San Diego, California. It was not long after his film debut in Days of Glory in 1944 that he was established as one of Hollywood's most consistently popular leading men. What is more his career would prove to be very long. His last credit was in the television mini-series Moby Dick in 1998, fifty four years after his debut on the big screen. There can be little doubt that much of his success was due to his sheer versatility as an actor. With his looks Gregory Peck could have easily made a good living merely playing romantic leads. Fortunately for movie goers everywhere, he played far more than that.

Of course, Gregory Peck was best known for playing good guys. Indeed, the vast majority of his roles could quite rightfully be described as heroic. That having been said, the many good guys Gregory Peck played over the years were never one-dimensional. They may have been virtuous and morally upright, but they always had a complex inner life This is particularly true of the best known role he ever played, that of attorney Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Atticus Finch was not a simple cardboard cut out who espoused justice and equality for all. He was a complicated character who sought to do what was right, even when he knew the odds were against him. At the same time he sought to imbue his children with his own sense of honour. Arguably Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch is one of the most sophisticated portrayals of a truly good man in cinema history. Not only did he win the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, but in 2003, the American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the greatest hero in American film.

While Atticus Finch is by far the best known hero that Gregory Peck ever played, he was by no means the first. As mentioned earlier, the majority of roles Gregory Peck played were good guys. In Cape Fear (1962) Gregory Peck once more played a lawyer, only this time one who must defend his family against a rapist (played by Robert Mitchum) who blames him for his conviction. It seems the lawyer, Sam Bowden, had testified as a witness against him. As played by Gregory Peck, Sam Bowden is an impressive character, one who insists on doing the right thing even when he might prefer taking an easier course of action.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, with his looks Gregory Peck could have easily made a living playing romantic leads. And he did just that in one of the most romantic films of the Fifties. In Roman Holiday (1953) he played Joe Bradley, the American journalist with whom Princess Ann (played by Audrey Hepburn) falls in love.

Gregory Peck played more than heroic roles in his career. He also played complicated characters who cannot easily be considered heroes or villains. One of these was Brigadier General Frank Savage in Twelve O'Clock High (1949), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Brigadier General Savage is a good man, but one who begins experiencing post traumatic stress due to combat. Gregory Peck gave a very realistic portrayal of a man who has seen far too much warfare for his own good.

While Brigadier General Savage was essentially a good man, the same cannot be said for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956). After being nearly killed in an encounter with the whale of the title, Captain Ahab becomes obsessed with getting revenge. While the role is atypical of most of the roles Gregory Peck played over the years, he does a remarkable job of bringing Captain Ahab to life.

Although today when most people think of Gregory Peck they picture Atticus Finch or one of the many other heroes he  played over the years, he did play outright villains over the years. In Duel in the Sun (1946) Gregory Peck played  Lewton "Lewt" McCanles, the younger son of Laura Belle McCanles (played by Lillian Gish). Unlike virtuous older brother Jesse McCanles (played by Joseph Cotten), Lewt is an unrepentant womaniser who knows his way around a gun. A lesser actor might have made Lewt thoroughly unlikeable, but Gregory Peck endows him with a charm all his own.

Later in his career Gregory Peck played another villain, Nazi scientist  Dr. Josef Mengele, in The Boys from Brazil (1978). Gregory Peck's portrayal of Mengele (an actual historical figure known for the atrocities he committed in  Auschwitz) is a bit over the top, but fitting a movie whose very premise is a bit left of centre.

Over the years Gregory Peck played a wide variety of roles. He played many heroes over the years, including Captain Horatio Hornblower in the 1950 film of the same name, Jim Douglass in The Bravados (1958), Captain Keith Mallory in The Guns of Navarone (1957), and many others. He also played a number of complicated characters who could be considered neither hero nor villain, including Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (1950), Harry Street in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952),  and Henry Adams in The Million Pound Note (1954). He played villains less often, but when he did they were memorable. More often than not Gregory Peck delivered truly great performances, so it should be little surprise that so many movies in which he starred are so well remembered: Spellbound (1945), The Yearling (1946), The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), Pork Chop Hill (1959), and many others. One hundred years after his birth, Gregory Peck remains one of the best known and most beloved actors of all time.

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