Mary Badham returns to Birmingham
Posted on Nov 13, 2012 in Features
To Kill a Mockingbird, a Great American classic Novel, is now fifty two years old. Many have read the book; it’s a staple in both middle and high school English classes and its themes may sometimes be brought up again at the college level. It holds a special place in the heart of Alabama, as its author Harper Lee is a Monroeville native and created a small fictional Alabama time to in which to set her story. To Kill a Mockingbird is known for its themes of childhood, loss of innocence, Southern life, and racial prejudices and injustice. Harper Lee would go on to win a Pulitzer Price for her work.
Only two years after its publication, the book was adapted into a movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and ten year old Birmingham girl Mary Badham as Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Like the book, the film is highly regarded, with Atticus Finch often being cited as one of the greatest movie heroes of all time. Mary Badham’s performance was also praised. At the age of ten, she became the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has a star in front of the Alabama Theatre, though a lot of citizens may not know exactly who she is. Mary retired from acting at a young age, so she never became very well known. She did have a role in the last episode of the original Twilight Zone series, but that’s about it. Now Miss Badham is an art restorer and college testing coordinator, a wife of a school teacher and mother of two children. But she still travels around the world, telling of her time making To Kill a Mockingbird and discussing the messages of the novel.
On the morning of November 8, 2012, Mary Badham, now sixty years old, is very much like you would expect a grown up version of herself to be like. Her hair is still short and brown, and in her voice, there is still a faint Southern accent. She began the discussion by talking about what it was like to grow up in Birmingham in the 1950’s and 60’s, a pivotal point in the Civil Rights movement. She related the true life events in 1960’s city-life to the 1930’s rural town in To Kill a Mockingbird, claiming that in the thirty year span, not much had changed in Alabama. While not every single person in the city shared beliefs of segregation, it was considered very dangerous to voice unpopular opinions. “It was a white man’s time,” said Badham.
Young Mary experienced a bit of culture shock when traveling to Hollywood to film the movie. While staying in California, she was free to associate with anybody she wanted to, despite the colors of their skin. She saw her first ever Asian family and interracial couple. She returned to Alabama with a new outlook, something she was unfortunately forbidden to share with the people of Birmingham. She spoke of growing up on 33rd Street S. in the Highland-Forest Park area, and inviting a young black delivery boy inside for lemonade one July afternoon. Her parents did not agree with her spending time with the boy not because they were racist, but because of the power racists and the KKK had over integrationists. “If they found out, they would hurt you, your family, your friends, even your dogs were not safe,” said Mary. She said she knew then that she could not continue to stay in the South.
She encouraged the audience to travel, see as much as the world as they could from different perspectives and bring those new understandings back home. As Southerners especially, it is important for us to experience the new and the different. She then went on to invite questions about the making of the movie. Miss Badham discussed various co-stars, including a story about James K. Anderson (Bob Ewell in the film) being a method actor and staying in character on set. During the fight scene between him and Philip Alford (Jem Finch, Scout’s older brother), Anderson accidentally gave the child actor some scalp trauma from pulling him up by his hair. Miss Badham was later told by her on-screen brother that Mr. Anderson was a nice man and invited him over for dinner as an apology. When referring to Gregory Peck, she switched back and forth from the titles of “Mr. Peck” and his character’s name Atticus, a name which she called him in real life.
See Badham on 2B
Since the Birmingham children had never acted before, director Robert Mulligan employed techniques to get more genuine reactions from them, such as startling them during scenes and having actors stay in character as much as possible. She was separated from Robert Duvall who played Boo Radley until her only scene with him.
Her reaction and line “Hey Boo” was completely real.
When asked if she ever met Nelle Harper Lee, Badham said Miss Lee was on the movie set for about three weeks. Young Mary recalled seeing the author tearing up during the filming of one scene with Atticus. Robert Mulligan, proud and expecting a bit of laudation from the ultimate creator, asked Miss Lee if she was enjoying what she saw. All she said was, “He has a little potbelly, just like my daddy!” Mary said she met up with the eighty-six year old Nelle Harper about a year ago. “She’s frail, but in her mind, she is just as wise as ever.”
Being taking her leave, Miss Badham reiterated themes of the book and her opening dialog, emphasizing the importance of understanding and learning from those who are different from each of us. “Ignorance is the root of all evil,” she said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
Senior Staff Writer