From the opening credits nimbly imitating those from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the touching and quietly triumphant finale in which Peck’s daughter, Cecilia, gives birth to a healthy baby boy named after “Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, “A Conversation With Gregory Peck” demonstrates that the real-life Peck is very much like the loving and admirable fellow Peck cites as his favorite role: “Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch. At Cecilia Peck’s behest, Barbara Kopple and crew set out to document Peck’s traveling one-man show of give-and-take with adoring audiences and ended up with an extended, eminently watchable portrait of a devoted family man and gracious extemporaneous speaker. Winningly illustrated, engaging docu, which has just debuted on Turner Classic Movies, will have a long international life on tube and video.
Crew shot six of Peck’s town-hall-style chats, culling the high points of each 90- to 120-minute event, adding film clips and still photos to illustrate the actor’s disarmingly witty, evocative replies to audience questions. His integrity both onstage and off is an inspiration.
Born in 1916, to parents who divorced when he was very young, Peck didn’t discover acting until his senior year at Berkeley. No less an eminence than Max Reinhardt gave Peck a surefire tip for overcoming stage fright, and the tall, handsome thesp with the sonorous elocution strode into a screen career distinguished by juicy parts and gorgeous leading ladies, including Ava Gardner (three pics), Audrey Hepburn (Peck insisted that newcomer Hepburn’s billing join his above the title on “Roman Holiday”), Sophia Loren and Ingrid Bergman.
Although Robert Mitchum tried to drown him in “Cape Fear” and a pack of dogs headed for his throat in “The Boys From Brazil,” Peck says his diciest moment was when he almost got killed “riding a rubber whale” in “Moby Dick.” The “most fun” he ever had was doing a soft shoe routine with Jack Benny and George Burns on the former’s TV show — a swell clip.
Be it for a live audience or Kopple’s camera, Peck speaks with unforced candor of everything from finding a “soulmate” in adored second wife Veronique to his own lapse into depression following the suicide of one of his sons. Peck’s account of why French journalist Veronique hesitated when Peck called her at work to suggest an immediate lunch date (as Peck learned later, she was slated to interview Albert Schweitzer at Jean-Paul Sartre’s apartment that same afternoon but chose Peck instead) is both a terrific anecdote and the beginning of an apparently ideal romantic partnership. The Pecks are shown enjoying a rambunctious meal with French President Jacques Chirac, who playfully claims that he’s in love with Veronique.
Peck told the BBC in 1974, “I think the secret of film acting is complete candor with the audience — letting them see the real you.” Indeed, the only time Peck took a role home was when he made a firm snap decision to buy a house while in mid-shoot portraying Gen. MacArthur: “I would’ve dithered — it was all MacArthur.”
BBC television footage from the ’70s touches on Peck’s forthright stance regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam, including his having produced “The Trial of the Catonsville 9,” a film about the civil disobedience of nuns and clergymen who burned draft records. More recently, in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, Peck is seen addressing a crowd in Philadelphia about the intelligent application of gun control measures.Peck handles audience questions with unfailing good humor. “If you have two-part question please ask one part at a time — I might have a senior moment up here,” he says after a double-decker inquiry. If the thesp experiences such moments, there’s not a trace of them here — or indeed, at the post-world-preem Q&A at the Chicago fest. Peck appears to recall every actor, helmer and crew member he’s worked with. And a docu seg in which the actor reads aloud from a draft of his memoirs indicates he’s a crafty and evocative prose stylist.
Camerawork gets the action across, use of clips is smooth. Docu may err too much on the side of happy family vignettes for some people’s taste, but Peck’s unbridled affection for his wife and children is such a substantial aspect of his identity that only a curmudgeon would find fault.