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Martin Scorsese Pays Tribute to Gregory Peck

April 5 marks the 100th birthday of Gregory Peck. He was one of those movie stars whose greatness has become more and more evident with the passing of the years. He was always respected and beloved, but I’m not sure that his talent as an actor–his genius, really–was recognized in his lifetime. Peck often played ordinary men, the kind of people you’d see walking down the street every day of your life: doctors, lawyers, businessmen, people that worked nine to five. He had a kind of everyday elegance, and you couldn’t really imagine him playing aristocrats. When a film was made out of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a massive bestseller, Peck played the hero: it would have been surprising if they’d asked anyone else. And because he was so good at embodying the dreams and anxieties and frustrations of ordinary Americans–the day to day living–he was, I believe, taken for granted. But when you study his performances, you see a vast sea of emotion, carried and expressed with the greatest economy. Peck studied with Sanford Meisner, one of the many great acting teachers to come out of the Group Theatre, and his craft–his control of his “instrument,” meaning his imposing but powerful physique and his glorious baritone voice–was impeccable. It amazes me to go back and look at his performances now. The hunter in The Macomber Affair, the ship’s commander in Raoul Walsh’s Captain Horatio Hornblower, the lawyer in Cape Fear and, of course, his signature role as Atticus Finch, another lawyer, in To Kill a Mockingbird–they’ve all deepened with the years and become more moving to me. All four of those pictures are included in TCM’s daylong tribute, which also features Peck’s 1944 debut in Days of Glory, Jacques Tourneur’s film about a Soviet guerilla group fighting against the Nazis. That film is included, along with Clarence Brown’s lovely color adaptation of Marjorie Keenan Rawlings’ novel The Yearling; two very special comedies, Man with a Million (a British picture directed by Ronald Neame, based on a Mark Twain story) and Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman (Peck was excellent at comedy); The Guns of Navarone, now a suspense classic; and On the Beach, Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, and truly one of the saddest pictures ever made. I realize that 24 hours gives you time for only a handful of titles, but the selection could have been expanded to include so many other Peck films (all of which are shown fairly often on TCM). For instance, Spellbound and The Paradine Case, his two films for Hitchcock; Duel in the Sun, in which he played one of the darkest villains in movie history; Twelve O’Clock High, an exceptional film about a WWII bomber pilot under stress; The Gunfighter; Roman Holiday; The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; John Huston’s Moby-Dick; Robert Parrish’s The Purple Plain; The Big Country; and Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon–so many remarkable films, such an extraordinary actor. I’m proud to say that I had the chance to work with Gregory Peck, on the remake of Cape Fear, and he was every bit as lovely a person, and talented and inspired an actor as I’d expected. It was a great experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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