Peck's story is something to talk about

Review: `Conversation' is a great film that not only looks at the movie legend's life and work. It also looks into his soul.

April 18, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You don't have to admire "A Conversation with Gregory Peck," airing tonight as part of the acclaimed "American Masters" series on PBS. The 90-minute film is directed and produced by two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County USA" and "American Dream"), and it's a pleasure to sit back and let such a gifted storyteller take you where she will with her camera.

In this program, there's only Peck and Kopple's camera - no correspondent, no narrator, no production razzle-dazzle to come between you and the subject. Kopple directs like B.B. King plays blues guitar. She strips away the flash and excess, then finds the handful of notes that perfectly distill the emotion that the artist is trying to communicate.

After an opening montage that cleverly mimics "To Kill a Mockingbird," (Peck's favorite film and the one that earned him an Oscar), Kopple's profile begins backstage at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, where Peck is about to begin his one-man show, which is built around his memories. By interfacing film of the onstage world, where a sellout crowd is watching a reel of clips that encapsulates Peck's career, with a backstage camera that follows the actor as he nervously paces back and forth waiting to go on, Kopple achieves an instant intimacy with both subject and viewer.

"Well, as I always say, it's too late to turn back now," the 85-year-old actor mumbles to himself just before he walks into the spotlight, and we hear the crowd roar. It's a brilliant bit of filmmaking that both gives us the sense of eavesdropping on Peck backstage, and perfectly launches the profile.

Kopple followed Peck from theater to theater on his tour, and the voice that the film develops is found in the conversation between Peck and his fans during performances, and question-and-answer sessions that follow. The anecdotes surely are honed more for audience effect than historical accuracy, but they're nevertheless a delight.

From Peck's account of Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," watching with a tear on her cheek as they filmed the first scene of her book, to Peck describing the radiance of a young Audrey Hepburn playing opposite him in "Roman Holiday," this is a man who can tell a story.

My favorite reminiscence involves his first date with a young French newspaper reporter named Veronique who had been sent to interview him in Paris as part of the promotion for "Roman Holiday." The reporter is now his wife of 43 years, and by paying special attention to that marriage throughout the film, Kopple reveals Peck in a way few show business profiles ever achieve.

"A Conversation with Gregory Peck" does have one large flaw: It fails to locate Peck artistically on the cultural landscape of American film. That's where a narrator's voice and more overt point of view might have been helpful.

On the other hand, if that's the price we pay for the kind of intimacy Kopple achieves, it's well worth it.

On TV

What: "A Conversation with Gregory Peck"

When: Tonight at 8:30

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67), and WETA (Channel 26)

In brief: An acclaimed filmmaker takes us backstage in the life of a celebrated actor.

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