The Fort Lee Film Commission each year presents its Barrymore Award to an individual whose work in film best exemplifies the traditions of both the pioneer filmmakers of Fort Lee and the greatest American acting family, the Barrymores, who called Fort Lee their home in the early 1900s.
Past recipients include three-time Academy Award winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Academy Award winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg and Academy Award winning actress Celeste Holm.
Maurice Barrymore, the patriarch of the acting clan, made his home in a rambling grand Victorian home on Hammett Avenue in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee as the 19th century turned to the 20th.
Though Maurice, an acclaimed Broadway thespian, never made a film, his three children, Lionel, Ethel and John, all made films, and some of their first were shot in Fort Lee. Maurice was an avid Fort Lee firefighter, so much so he staged a 1900 fundraiser for both the construction of a new firehouse for Company #2 in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee.
The year 1900 saw Maurice’s 18-year-old son, John, come live with him in Coytesville. John had been raised by his grandmother after his mother’s death and this was to be the longest period of time he spent with his father. Young John, or as we like to call him “Jack,” wanted to be an artist, but Maurice was adamant that the family trade was acting and young Jack must be an actor.
This led Maurice to cast his son Jack in the play "A Man of the World," which would be staged at Buckheister’s Hotel on the corner of Main Street and Central Road in Fort Lee as a fundraiser for Fire Company #2 and the construction of their fire house on Washington Avenue. This building, though no longer a firehouse, still stands on Washington Avenue.
This was to be Jack Barrymore’s stage debut.
Based on this history, the Fort Lee Film Commission conceived the Barrymore Award.
This year’s recipient could not be more worthy of the award based on her iconic performance that transcends time and place and is as relevant today as when she filmed this wonderful story 50 years ago in 1962 – our 2012 Barrymore Award winner is Mary Badham, who as a child played the part of Scout in the Universal Studio classic film To Kill a Mockingbird.
I attended the recent Tri-State Film Festival, which is operated by Fort Lee Film Commission chairman Nelson Page. We hope to bring large-scale film festivals to Fort Lee once the proposed three-screen cinema and film museum is built on Main Street as part of the new development project.
Until then, since we have no proper cinema in Fort Lee; most of our large-scale programs are held outside Fort Lee in film venues. The presentation of the Fort Lee Film Commission’s 2012 Barrymore Award was made prior to a 50th anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird.
This wonderful film produced by a studio born in Fort Lee 100 years ago, Universal, based on Harper Lee’s book, features an Academy Award winning performance by Gregory Peck as southern attorney Atticus Finch. I believe that Academy Award was won by Mr. Peck in part due to the wonderful relationship between father and daughter depicted on screen, and that daughter was played by Mary Badham.
Mary grew up in the deep south and has firsthand knowledge of the prevalent racial discrimination of that pre-civil rights era. She told the audience at the recent film festival that she has vivid memories of being with her African-American nanny in Alabama, where she witnessed African-Americans being forced by the bus driver to sit in the back of the bus and where she herself was pulled from her nanny to sit in front of her on that same bus.
Not too many years later, Mary won her first role in a film that came out at the time when civil rights demonstrations began to take place on the streets of America and action on a federal level was being mounted to combat discrimination.
But this is also a personal story between Scout and Atticus. Mary detailed her lifelong relationship with Gregory Peck.
“He was always Atticus to me until the day he died” recalled Mary.
Truly Mary was one of Mr. Peck's daughters in a real sense. She remains very close to Peck’s family since his death in 2003. I really believe this film is as strong a lesson in American history as any text and maybe more so as it makes a story come to life that is as relevant today as it was in 1962.
Though the film was set in the early 1930s and released in 1962, it’s message remains timeless. Separate form the importance of the issue of racial discrimination, there also is a reverence displayed for those neighbors we may encounter in life that we seek to ignore or if not ignore than ridicule. I speak of Boo Radley, the neighbor of Scout in the film.
The scenes between Scout and Boo are tender and truly bring tears to your eyes at the end of this film. Just the sound of Scout saying “Hey Boo” in her own way makes this film more than a film but a lesson in life and how our relationships between each other should be but so often never really are.
As I presented our Barrymore Award to Mary Badham, and I looked into her eyes I saw Scout, and for a moment in time, I was on the porch swing listening to the simple wisdom of a child and understood the importance American film in our lives – to tell our communal stories and share our experiences to make our lives on this small planet more connected to each other in even the smallest ways.
So to you, Mary, all of us at the Fort Lee Film Commission say, “Hey Scout, thank you for one of the most important American film performances of the 20th century.”