Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Greatest Literary One Hit Wonder: Hey Boo

Harper Lee was not interviewed for her own documentary. Nor is she cooperating with an upcoming biography. Though she was once something of a public figure, Lee has shunned the media spotlight for years. Yet, her first and only novel has been sufficient to keep Lee prominent in the national consciousness. Filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy celebrates the enduring legacy of the beloved American classic and its very private author in Hey Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When Harper Lee sold her future Pulitzer Prize winner to Lippincott, one could still find a major publisher in the city of Philadelphia. A lot has changed in the publishing industry since then, but Mockingbird’s extended editorial process was unusual even for its day. It was a rough manuscript, but Lee’s editor recognized the potential of her voice. Thanks to the remarkable financial generosity of Lee’s new friends in New York, Joy Brown and her husband Michael, a jazz-cabaret vocalist (who once collaborated with Harold Arlen), the aspiring writer was given the time to rewrite and refine her novel. The rest is history.

Those scenes exploring Lee’s early years as a young woman from the South navigating New York are the strongest aspect of the documentary. Indeed, it is nice to see the Browns get their due, coming across as rather charming folks, happy to have helped facilitate literary history. As a corrective to conventional wisdom, Boo makes it clear Lee was not always the Sallinger-like literary hermit she is so often described as. In fact, it shrewdly incorporates generous samples of Lee’s final radio interview given soon after the release of the Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation. Far less insightful are the tributes from contemporary writers and celebrities, like Anna Quindlen, Wally Lamb, and Rosanne Cash (whose presence is frankly a little baffling).

To its credit, Boo should also put to rest the rumor Truman Capote ghost-wrote Mockingbird once and for all. However, it does not offer a definitive explanation why Lee never produced a second novel. Murphy speculates the challenge of following up an iconic work like Mockingbird might have proved too daunting. Since Lee remains silent on the issue herself, we may never truly know.

Yet, it is important to remember, though a critic of segregation, Lee was and is a woman of the South. Viewers come to understand this full well through some of her interview excerpts, particularly when she offers some circumspect criticism of the Freedom Riders for their confrontational tactics. It is easy to suppose Lee would become increasingly uncomfortable with the prevailing culture that developed during the mid to late 1960’s, perhaps ultimately choosing not to engage with it.

As the author of Scout, Atticus & Boo, Murphy might be the foremost authority on Lee and her only novel. While she clearly establishes the significance of the work, she also evokes a surprisingly cohesive sense of Lee as a person, effectively contradicting the Boo Radley-esque stereotype. Respectful and straightforward, Boo is quite a bit more informative than one might suspect, well worth seeing when it opens this Friday (5/13) in New York at the Quad Cinema.