I’ve never really understood the magnanimous praise heaped on the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. To be honest, I’m not even that enamored of the 1960 Harper Lee novel. Both the film and its literary source trumpet the foundational values of early sixties White liberalism loud and proud, and as I have worked my way, sometimes painfully, through both works alongside a generation that followed their release by over half a century, I sense that mainstream U.S. society still clings to the courtroom story, not just in terms of the obvious judicial inequities, but also in White culture distancing itself from racism while practicing borderline idolatry for overt racism’s White idealist opponents. It’s a convenient identification, but one that limits the complexity of the theme and restricts the depth of characters actually facing the racial oppression. As a result, we get a central White hero and a peripheral Black martyr, a trope that trudged its way right into the 21st century. I certainly don’t dislike Atticus Finch, but isn’t it time that someone gave us the story from Tom Robinson’s vantage point?
But that isn’t the focus here. Instead, I want to share my tremendous shock – experienced during a classroom viewing of the film – at the final act revelation of Boo Radley as portrayed by Robert Duvall. I had completely forgotten Duvall was in the film at all and even failed to recognize the actor when he sheepishly appeared from behind Jem’s bedroom door.
“Who is that hot fuck and why isn’t he hiding behind my bedroom door?“ I gasped. Well, in my head I did, since the out-loud version would have been met with contempt, horror, hysteria, and delight, none of which I wished to elicit from the adolescent audience in my company, no matter how badly they needed a jolt from their general disinterest. But Boo Radley sure as shit woke up one sleepyhead in that classroom.
In reading TKaM, I never once envisioned the borderline mythical village idiot as a sad-eyed, black & white version of Ryan Gosling, complete with the improbable blonde hair. My surprise wasn’t limited to Boo Radley, however; the sensual astonishment extended right to the actor playing him. While I have always admired Robert Duvall’s talent (Coppola’s The Rain People!), never have I felt such an acute, groin-centered attraction to him. Little did I know such provocation simply required some stunning b/w photography by Russell Harlan and an intense, imploring, silent gaze from the performer.
Note regarding the wrongness of the hotness for Boo Radley: Nearly mute simpletons with big hearts but brutish tendencies have turned up on my crush list for years, despite my best efforts of suppression. See Crush File #2 for elaboration.