Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockinbird (May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Art)

[HEY BOO screens Friday May 20th at 7pm at the Cleveland Museum of Art Morley Lecture Hall.]

Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

There's this term in publishing, "one-and-done." It refers to the author, typically of fiction, who only completes one book. In the romantic POV, it's a masterwork, after which the author having said everything necessary, gracefully withdraws from the scene. Or...maybe their first book bombs and they never have the heart to yield up a second, or there's a crippling writer's block, or premature death.The most famous one-and-done? Probably Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, though cases could be made for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or John O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas. But it's likely that to many readers To Kill a Mockingbird, published July 11, 1960, ranks above all. Probably more schoolkids read it than Twilight (one can only hope), the tale of small-town Alabama in the 1930s and how a 9-year-old motherless tomboy named Scout witnesses a racist miscarriage of justice that enriches and darkens her child's-eye-view of the world, and of her heroic lawyer father Atticus. And, unlike other one-and-dones, this author, Harper Lee, happens to be still very much alive - albeit shy of publicity.

The docu feature HEY BOO is writer-producer-director Mary McDonagh Murphy's love ode to To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as as much of a biography of Harper Lee as can be expected. A parade of bestselling authors, politicians and celebrities go on record about what To Kill a Mockbird has meant to them. Respectful appraisals of the narrative parse the book as small-town evocation, as civil-rights political document, as companion to the nearly flawless motion-picture adaptation which followed (anyone else got bad Bonfire of the Vanities pains like me?). Harper Lee herself stopped giving interviews in the mid-1960s (Oprah Winfrey relates a recent, cordial but unsuccessful bid to lure Lee back on the air), but we hear her voice in archival audio - and perhaps even more remarkably, we get extensive reminiscence from Lee's older sister, who still practices law at age 99. Alice Finch Lee is a character all itself, with all her years etched in an unforgettably mummy-gravelly voice (yeah, laugh all you want, she's still probably in better shape than I will be when I hit 49).

The stranger-than-fiction aspect, of course, is that future world-class author Harper Lee grew up next door to future world-class author Truman Capote, a playmate after whom the kid in the novel named Dill is modeled. A seemingly lifelong, mutually supporting friendship between Capote and Lee ended with her book hitting bigger than his (as a jealous, wicked and spiteful author myself, I wouldn't personally call In Cold Blood a letdown; I'd settle for also-ran if my name were on that one, dammit). It appears a longstanding gossip has arisen that Capote actually did the REAL work on To Kill a Mockingbird - and being without his assistance has kept Lee from publishing anything since (though it seemed she did try to research another project extensively, something that involved a fishing backdrop). HEY BOO denies that conspiracy theory - which I have to say does make a disturbing bit of sense, as most conspiracy theories do - and it also holds Truman Capote up in contrast as a worst-case-scenario of what fame can do to a writer, in this case making Capote a drunken caricature of himself, groping pretty boys (including future author Allen Gurganus) in a disco. In this interp, Harper Lee wisely fled all that (let's hope future documentaries give J.D. Salinger points for being so savvy; they probably won't), and the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird is all the more for her turning down being a regular on game shows and Dick Cavett. Why is the documentary titled for Boo Radley, the neighborhood boogeyman hunted by Dill and Scout? That's a bit of literary detective work that's too nice to spoil, even for me. (2 ½ out of 4 stars)


  1. Is this playing currently in the NE OH region?

  2. Sadly it only played one day here (May 20th at the Cleveland Museum of Art). They do sometimes bring movies back by popular demand, so you might try contacting them.

  3. I want to show this movie in my 9th grade English class to demonstrate the significance of the novel. Does it give away the ending result of the trial? Is the "groping" you mention handled in a way that is inappropriate for school?


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