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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why Everyone Should Watch Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement"

By Andrew Belonsky -

Most people remember iconic actor Gregory Peck as the progressive lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 big screen adaptation of To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Fifteen years prior, however, Peck starred in a different book-to-movie production, Gentleman's Agreement, in which he plays another idealistic hero, reporter Philip Schuyler Green, who pretends he's Jewish to write an article about anti-Semitism.
His trials and tribulations speak to any number of the nation's ongoing social ills, like homophobia, and this 64-year-old movie's something more than just entertainment: it's a road map on fighting bigotry in its many forms.
Based on Laura Z. Hobson's 1947 best-selling novel of the same name, the Elia Kazan-directed Gentleman's Agreement revolves around journalist Green's efforts to get his Christian mind around anti-Semitism, a topic then still considered taboo, even in the shadow of Hitler's holocaust and World War II.
Realizing he needs a unique angle for his story, Green decides he'll pretend to be Jewish, to, as he says, "crack this whole thing open." And the cracks appear immediately: most of his colleagues at his magazine -- the fictional, social justice-seeking Smith's Weekly -- become visibly uncomfortable when they hear of his fabricated Hebrew background.
One associate, a prominent industrialist, even tries to dissuade him, insisting, "The less we talk about it, the better," because an article will simply "stir it up." The character can barely even utter the term "anti-Semitism."
Green's supposed Semitism also becomes quite the complication in the widower's personal life, as he's forced to teach his son the uncomfortable lessons of bigotry, and balance his love for Dorothy McGuire's Lacey, a WASP who's constantly fretting that cover story will alienate them among her friends uptown and in Connecticut. The title of the movie does, after all, come from the "gentleman's agreement" the elite have on restricting Jewish inclusion.
Kathy's slow, stumbling path to acceptance plays a pivotal role in the movie's plot, as Green's forced to weigh his heavy heart against socially responsible politics, particularly as Kathy's attitude sets her apart from the other major women in Green's life, his incredible mother, actress Anne Revere, and the magazine's fashion editor, Anne Dettrey, played perfectly by Celeste Holm, who won an Oscar for her efforts.
Nor does the anti-Semitism Green experiences stop at the blue blood gentiles. Green's revolted to hear his secretary, June Havoc's Elaine, a secret Jew who changed her name to get a job at the "liberal" magazine Smith's, express her own, self-directed brand of anti-Semitism. Discussing "bad" Jews, she admits, "If I'm about to do something I know I shouldn't, I'll say, 'Don't be such a little kike,'" a sentiment akin to a gay person who says, "Oh, he's just a little fag."
And, in light of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell's" repeal, a drunk man's slur against Green's Jewish friend, Army Officer Dave Goldman, "I don't like officers, especially when they're yids," may become a gay serviceman's reality, only with a different epithet.
While it would be difficult for a pedestrian to pretend to be gay, simply watching the Green's fictional struggles -- overcoming a popular urge to ignore the problem, realizing even so-called liberals can hold bigoted views -- gives someone a sense of how real life intolerance, both large and small, operates in every crevice of our society. As Green and his friends discover, discrimination takes different shapes and styles, but remaining ugly just the same.
'Homophobia' or 'racism' could, for example, quite easily replace 'anti-Semitism' in Green's declaration, "I've come to see lots of nice people who hate [anti-Semitism] and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows... People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made."
No matter which bigotry one projects onto the film, the idea remains the same: criticism alone doesn't fulfill true justice. Only action can bring eradicate such cruelties. As Anne says, while criticizing Kathy's hypocrisy, "[Kathy and her group] haven't got the guts to take the step from talking to action. One little action on one little front. I know it's not the whole answer but it's got to start somewhere. It's got to be with action... It's got to be with people -- nice people, rich people, poor people, big and little people."
At the end of the movie, once Green's written his piece, his mother, proud as pie, vows to fight her bad heart and see how the article and other progressive efforts turn out. "The world is stirring in very strange ways," she says.
"Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that's why it's so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Maybe it won't be the American century after all... or the Russian century or the atomic century. Wouldn't it be wonderful... if it turned out to be everybody's century... when people all over the world - free people - found a way to live together?"
Unfortunately, as persistent homophobia, growing Islamophobia and tenacious racism and sexism prove, Mrs. Green's prediction turned out to be premature.
But perhaps if everyone watched this film, they could truly absorb and spread its message, one Peck delivers with the force that made him famous, "[Bigots are] persistent traitors to everything this country stands for, and you have to fight them, not just for the Jews, but for everything this country stands for."
It's worth noting that this movie very nearly didn't get made. No one in Hollywood, including Cary Grant, who was originally offered Peck's role, wanted to touch it, and the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated many of its actors, ultimately leading to the blacklisting of Revere and John Garfield, who played Goldman, for refusing to testify. The culture of silence was in full effect back then, but Kazan, Peck and the rest managed to break the barriers, garner Oscar nominations and create an enduring, pedagogical classic. And all it took was a little action. Imagine that.

 Andrew Belonsky is a journalist living in New York City. 


1 comment:

  1. Laura Hobson also wrote Consenting Adult, a heterosexual mother's story about her adult son's coming out. Hobson based the story on her own experience with her gay son. Consenting Adult was also made into a movie. A TV movie. It starred Marlo Thomas. I may have seen it when it first aired in 1985, but I don't really remember it.

    I remember the novel somewhat better in that I had an opinion about it: decently written, tho not particularly literary. When I saw the movie of Gentleman's Agreement, it reminded me a good deal of Consenting Adult. Perhaps one should try a double feature?