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When in Rome: Gregory Peck romances Audrey Hepburn in 'Roman Holiday.'

Peck Journalism

Gregory Peck is remembered in a four-film tribute at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto

By Richard von Busack

THE LATE Gregory Peck emoted the kind of integrity that could, at best, be late-period Hollywood's answer to Gary Cooper. At worst, Peck exuded the sort of earnestness that was programmed into the robot Lincoln at Disneyland. In Peck's Oscar-winning performance in To Kill a Mockingbird, he is the father a lot of viewers wished they had. He plays a lawyer who faces down a small Southern town seething with prejudice. In this drama, revived as part of a weeklong tribute at the Stanford Theater, Peck evinces the spirit of his times. No other actor was so spot-on in depicting that New Frontiersman confidence that any social problem could be overcome with a stiff backbone and rolled up shirt sleeves. However, on an unlevel playing-field--evil's favorite gridiron--Peck is handily defeated: think of Cape Fear, where Robert Mitchum takes the air out of Peck's probity: "You degenerate," Peck hisses at Mitchum's satanic Max Cady, who all but laughs in Peck's prissy face.

However, Peck was convincingly culpable in John Frankenheimer's I Walk the Line, as an adulterous sheriff. He was an often-inspired Ahab in John Huston's Moby Dick. Peck conquers false chin whiskers for some electrifying moments as the lightning-struck captain, particularly when he rallies the Pequod's harpooners like a carnival barker.

And Peck goes richly bad in the creamy bonbon Duel in the Sun. He calls a black-clad villain called, believe it or not, Lewt McCanles, the evil brother of Joseph Cotten, who gets his girl stolen once again. David O. Selznick's follow-up to Gone With the Wind, based on a novel by San Francisco's Niven Busch, is a kitsch classic--the prototype of the Russ Meyer movie. Duel in the Sun is suffused with the same kind of howling outrageousness director King Vidor brought to the equally recommended Beyond the Forest. This time the black wig isn't on Bette Davis but on Jennifer Jones, playing a hot-blooded half-breed named Pearl Chavez. Her good half is prayed over by Walter Huston, a preacher calling himself "The Sin Eater," though it's the scenery he's chewing. Pearl's bad half is drawn to a leering Peck, who won't forbear to spy on a lady when she's bathing. While perhaps not the movie Peck wanted to be remembered by, it's a demonstration of the actor's range, compared to his conventional but pleasant leading-man work in Roman Holiday. Peck, described as "The king of the underplayers" by director Vincente Minnelli, also performs some unusual slapstick in Designing Women, a sample of some elegant MGM widescreen fluff. Features of this rarely revived chic comedy are the late Dolores Gray (so fine in It's Always Fair Weather), a highly talented standard poodle and a legendary hangover sequence.

It's hard to remember a time when actors visibly mulled over their duty to perform moral material and keep the high ground. It's also almost forgotten, though critic David Thomson notes it, that Peck was high on Nixon's enemies list. Perhaps Nixon feared that there would come a day and a courtroom where he'd have to face Peck's righteous gaze over the top of his spectacles.

Duel in the Sun and Designing Woman play June 20; To Kill a Mockingbird and Roman Holiday play June 21-27 at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto.

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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