runs Sept. 16-20 at Egyptian
DESERVING OR NOT, Hollywood's leading men are often recognized for a singular exceptional quality. Tom Hanks' intrinsic decency rivals James Stewart's; Mel Gibson oozes sexual magnetism; Michael Douglas defines sophistication; Harrison Ford's icy intellect borders on arrogance.
In his prime, Gregory Peck—perhaps even more so than Stewart—had the grace and range to convincingly exhibit all of these traits. It's unfair to laud only his famous stoicism; Peck bravely scribbled colorful imperfections on the often one-dimensional heroes in the scripts he was given.
Spanning 16 years of Peck's work, this series showcases the actor as a disarmingly mortal Adonis. He's no great pugilist, brawling to woozy draws in Roman Holiday, and he seems miscast as a mule-dumb frontiersmen in The Yearling. (Presented with a can't-miss opportunity to fell a bear in the latter, Peck's rifle misfires, knocking him on his rear.)
And what of that considerable sex appeal? Peck barely gets to sample the charms of Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn (respectively in Spellbound and Holiday) before plot machinations snatch them away. Further deflating the balloon, To Kill a Mockingbird's widower/attorney Atticus Finch is practically asexual, while Peck's Yearling spouse (Jane Wyman) is embittered by repeated miscarriages. The Egyptian's big screen will magnify both the humanizing quirks and subtle fire he invests in a variety of archetypes.
Before today's insipid trend of saddling dramas with excessive expository dialogue, writers left room for actors to fill in the emotional blanks with their bodies. Peck's smoldering gaze is perfect for the task. The bleakest sequence in Mockingbird—inarguably the crown jewel of the four Egyptian titles—culminates with a reprehensible racist spitting point-blank in Peck's face. His reaction is staggering. Until this point, Atticus Finch is a stalwart nebbish who champions nonviolence to his children. Peck rises like a dinosaur, not taking a step toward the redneck—simply imposing his atmosphere upon him. Then suddenly he retracts, startled by his own potential for violence. The entire ordeal takes maybe three seconds. It's unforgettable.
The shallow Holiday, however, will surely resurface some day as a Meg Ryan vehicle. As the rugged journalist keen on exploiting a naive runaway princess (Hepburn), Peck has little to do but grow a conscience and fall in love. Critical sequences where the two part and reunite would be fluff if he hadn't previously exposed a jarring fragility that the story doesn't deserve.
Rarely do bona fide icons warrant rediscovery, much less re-examination. Peck is a handsome exception through and through.