I'm not sure what's more of a shame: That Gregory Peck never got a chance to play Superman, or that Superman never got a chance to play Gregory Peck. I'm sure that Henry Cavill will do the Man of Steel justice in Zack Snyder's not-at-all superfluous reboot of the American icon (wherein Clark Kent's alter-ego will be faster than a speeding bullet, and then slower than a speeding bullet but then faster than a speeding bullet again!) but I happened to be watching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' when the news of his casting hit, and it struck me that no amount of speed-ramped spandex could possibly eclipse the heroism embodied by Peck's timeless portrayal of Atticus Finch.
Harper Lee's lionhearted lawyer is made of words so stoically noble and valiant that Charlie Sheen could drop them in a stump speech and get elected president of the P.T.A. -- he's a
man presented to us through the eyes of his young star-struck daughter (a fact seemingly lost upon those who fault the film for its naivete), and so Atticus appears to be such a solid tower of moral authority that a lesser actor might have been devoured by his domineering decency. But not Gregory Peck -- Gregory Peck made Atticus Finch seem possible.
Of course, Peck's ultimate appeal was not as a role model, but rather as a fantasy -- that he so ably bridged the gap between those two strata of reverence is what made him such an icon of the American cinema. His persona was such that women wanted to be with him, and men wanted to be him... or at the very least platonically climb him as if he were an Ent. In other words, Peck wasn't an everyman, and he couldn't play everymen. Peck would have made a mess of verité, his gravitas alone would surely have sunk a John Cassavettes film. There was too much cinema in his sinews, surround sound could barely contain his bellowing voice.
As an actor Peck was 6-foot-3, but as a monolith of virtue he was larger than life. As a villain he was forced and forgettable, but as a hero he was so spellbinding and necessary that from his first Oscar nomination in 1944 (for 'The Keys of the Kingdom'), it was evident that he would enjoy one of Hollywood's longest careers.
Peck was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards four times in the first five years of his professional career, and not once during that time did he take home the gold. His performances in the films that earned him that acclaim were undeniably powerful, but ultimately feel incomplete and unformed. The problem, it seems, is that he was playing mere mortals.
General Frank Savage, for example -- his character in 1949's 'Twelve O'Clock High' -- suffers a nervous breakdown in the third act. It's a moment that, at least in retrospect, feels dissonantly contrived and insincere. In Hitchcock's ridiculous 'Spellbound,' Peck plays a man ostensibly suffering from a silly battery of psychiatric afflictions, a tough pill to swallow given the actor's palpable health and clarity (Hitchcock, to be fair, recognizes and toys with Peck's nascent screen persona by the film's merciful end).
Peck followed Oscar-nominated turns as virtuous characters in 'The Yearling' and 'Gentleman's Agreement' by playing the titular gambling addict in 'The Great Sinner,' a silly debacle that seems to have irrevocably convinced the actor that he was born to play heroes, not villains. Peck would spend the early part of the 1950s dressing up as captains and kings, a streak memorably interrupted by his turn as Joe Bradley in 'Roman Holiday,' a Prince Charming in the guise of an ex-pat American journalist. Much has already been said on this site about that particular William Wyler masterpiece, but suffice it to say that Peck may have been the only leading man to ever have seemed worthy of Audrey Hepburn, a sentiment which enables the film to achieve its full, devastating potential.
After 'Roman Holiday' the world at large seemed to understand that Peck was best served by roles which lay just beyond the boundaries of quotidian possibility, and thus was he tragically miscast as Captain Ahab in John Huston's middling adaptation of 'Moby Dick.' Only 38 years-old at the time of production and looking like Abraham Lincoln outfitted as a Bond villain (he's snuffed behind a bushy beard and a streaking scar beneath his left eye), Peck was able to summon Ahab's otherworldly mania, but not its crippling toll.
Every time I see Peck's lifeless body strapped to the White Whale ('Moby Dick' spoiler alert? In a related story, Romeo & Juliet have a messy break-up and it totally pays off for Noah to build that ark) there's a moment wherein it seems like he's going to emerge from the sea riding that thing like it's Free Willy, having amicably resolved his issues with the grizzled sack of blubber because it was just the right thing to do.
But then there was Atticus Finch, a character that wouldn't only define Peck's professional life, but also his very being. Peck finally won his Oscar for playing the Alabaman lawyer / single father (but Cameron Crowe's mother would insist you remember Calpurnia) who defends an innocent black man from the prejudiced community so eager to see him burn for an assault on a white teenager (an assault obviously committed by the girl's father, a man who makes no attempt to hide the fact that he's by far the worst human ever birthed unto this mortal coil).
The brunt of his performance is confined to a single scene in which Atticus beseeches the citizens packed into that courthouse to abandon their intolerance. Peck paces about, bellowing that "In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!" His speech lasts for longer than most Hollywood careers, but not even the most cynical among us is once provoked to roll their eyes.
The brilliance of Peck's performance is that on the page Atticus is every bit the idealist he claims not to be, but on the screen he's an earnest inspiration. All backbone and wavy hair, Peck conjures an honorable utopia in which, however briefly, all our greatest hopes for civilization seem resolutely within our reach. Peck commands Harper Lee's words in a fashion so supernaturally stoic that it doesn't seem possible for viewers to be him or plausible for viewers to even be like him, but for a little while there it seems feasible that someone of his stature could actually exist, and that's among the cinema's most rejuvenating miracles.
Harper Lee once said that Atticus Finch allowed Gregory Peck to play himself -- it's a sentiment as lovely as it is reductive, but with Peck it seems like it could be true. At the very least, it recalls a time when certain actors could leap the distance between Superman and Clark Kent in a single bound.
P.S. I couldn't find room to mention it in this fawning and vaguely homoerotic tribute, but Peck was one of the best things to ever happen to Westerns. He's also eminently awesome in 'The Omen,' in which he tries to stab a young boy to death, but does so in heroic fashion (natch).