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Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & 'To Kill a Mockingbird': movie review

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee remains elusive in this new documentary that delves into her silence.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / May 20, 2011

Harper Lee visited a courthouse in her hometown in 1961.

First Run Features/File

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Whatever became of Harper Lee? This is the enigma at the heart of Mary McDonagh Murphy's documentary "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' " The author of one of the most beloved and honored American novels has not granted a full-fledged interview since 1964, three years after the book's publication. She also never wrote another novel.

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Unlike the late J.D. Salinger, Lee is not a recluse – she's appeared in public over the years to receive honorary awards – but a clue to her temperament can perhaps be gleaned from that last interview, for a New York radio station, where she described her reaction to the book's success as "sheer numbness, like being hit over the head and knocked cold."

A deeper clue comes from an anecdote from Oprah Winfrey, one of the film's many starry-eyed interviewees, who describes a lunch with Lee where she tried to persuade the author to appear on her talk show. Lee responded that she wasn't Scout, the novel's feisty heroine, but rather the fearful hermit Boo Radley.

Surely there is more to the mystery than even this. As the writer Mark Childress explains, if "Mockingbird" had sold 4,000 copies instead of 50 million, Lee would probably have written other books and been out on the circuit hustling them just like any other writer. (Well, almost any other. Thomas Pynchon anyone?) Lee's immense success insulated her from the usual cares of the writer's life, but it also stymied her. How could she follow up "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

Other serious writers, such as Norman Mailer ("The Naked and the Dead"), were able to move beyond the smash debut novel phenomenon and create full careers for themselves. Others, like Ralph Ellison ("Invisible Man"), could not. But how much of our expectations for Lee are unrealistic – unfair? In America, especially, artists are expected to top themselves regularly. When, inevitably, they don't, they are regarded as failures and their considerable successes are deemed old news. (This certainly describes the unjust reception to Orson Welles's career.) But what if Lee had only one story to tell? Might that not be enough?

It would have been wonderful if Lee had consented to an interview for this documentary, but at least we have, among many others, her 99-year-old sister Alice, until recently a practicing lawyer in their hometown of Monroeville, Ala. (Their father, A.C. Lee, was a progressive lawyer and the model for the novel's Atticus Finch, the role played in the celebrated 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.) Alice, who resembles Eudora Welty and has a voice that's like a cross between a foghorn and a buzz saw, is a fund of useful information.

She fills in the blanks on the relationship between Lee and Truman Capote, their childhood neighbor and the model for the novel's Dill Harris character. The closest of friends, Nelle Harper Lee and Capote fell apart when "To Kill a Mockingbird" won the Pulitzer Prize and "In Cold Blood" didn't. There were veiled insinuations, likely stemming from Capote, that he wrote, or heavily edited, much of her manuscript. "Poppycock," say several of the film's interviewees. Lee's voice in the book and in the many letters she wrote to friends is identical. And if Capote, a publicity hound, had actually written "To Kill a Mockingbird," he would have been the last person to deny it.

The Capote rumors issue from the same mind-set that can't comprehend how the writer of such a good book could never again write any more fiction – not even a short story. Alice Lee states flatly that her sister is not working on anything else, but there is triumphalism as well as regret in her voice. Going out on a high note is not such a bad thing, even if the note was sounded long ago. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

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