When Michael at My Stuff and Cr*p called for a Rug Rats Blog-a-thon about a month ago, I was immediately intrigued and signed up on the spot. The problem came later when trying to decide what performance to talk about. Normally, I hate children and especially child actors. They're usually so overly instructed and forced that all the spontaneity that comes with good acting is eradicated. It's so rare to find a child actor who can just act natural without a bunch of tricks that when it does come around it's worth celebrating (this is why I'm so completely in love with Abigail Breslin and can't stand Dakota Fanning-- there's no way in hell Fanning can be "normal" or childlike). I eventually ran across a list I had made about a year or so ago of 8 child performances that I loved. It included some of the usual standbys-- Leaud in 400 Blows, Osment in The Sixth Sense, O'Neal in Paper Moon, Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, Duke in The Miracle Worker, Taylor in National Velvet, McCormack in The Bad Seed-- but the one I chose was a performance that even in 1962, a year when youngins Duke and Mary Badham both got Best Supporting Actress nominations and his film To Kill a Mockingbird was a huge hit, didn't get him any notice whatsoever...
Phillip Alford as Jem Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
When I read To Kill a Mockingbird back in 9th grade, my favorite character of the whole novel was Jem, the oldest child of crusading lawyer Atticus Finch and brother to narrator Scout. I always felt that, since he was around the same age that I was when I read the novel, his transformation from simple kid to beginning to understand the importance of what's right and wrong was more interesting and more complete than Scout's since she's a lot younger. We watched the 1962 movie version in my English class soon after finishing the novel and imagine my surprise when my favorite character was portrayed so exquisitely by this kid. And with each subsequent viewing, Phillip Alford's performance just gets better and better.
Even in the first couple of scenes, when Alford's Jem takes the leadership role when playing with Scout (Mary Badham) and Dill (John Megna), you can see him acting with the least bit of pretense as possible. He acts and talks like any normal kid would and especially refreshing when contrasting him with Badham's shrilliness and Megna's cluelessness here.
Alford's greatest asset, and what suits him so particularly well in this role, is the way he observes everyone and everything around him and absorbs it all in. His first brilliant moment comes when a "mad" dog (i.e. rabies-infested) is discovered wandering the street and Atticus, whom, up until this point, both Jem and Scout think is just a boring lawyer with no "cool" talents, shoots the dog in one shot from about 75 feet away. Standing at the door, watching with wide-eyed wonder, I was impressed with Alford's ability to convey so much in those fleeting seconds without overselling it. I especially love his "Yes, sir" after Atticus tells him not to go near the dead dog-- it could have been a throw away line, but Alford's delivery beautifully shows the wonderment of Jem's discovery about his father.
There's another great moment when Jem is sitting on the front porch, waiting for his father to come back from driving the family's maid home for the night, and all of a sudden the sounds of the night start to scare the living shit out of him. Once again, his eyes convey nearly everything, but it's also the way he shifts in chair uncomfortably and runs down the street calling for his father that are equally terrifying. Not only is it one of the scariest scenes involving a child I've ever seen, but it also ranks with Lilian Gish's breakdown in The Wind as one of the scariest non-horror scenes ever.
The overall beauty of Alford's performance is the way he transitions from simple 10 year old boy to a 12 year old who is learning from his father what it means to be a good and just person. It's remarkable the way Alford is able to "become" Peck's Atticus, much in the same way a son would normally emulate his father as he gets older. His scenes towards the end, when he stands up for his father against the lynching mob or the way he helps Scout walk home after the pageant in her ham costume, feel more and more like Alford's Jem is starting to bridge the gap between child and adult.
Watching this performance again for the first time in a couple of years, I felt a mixture of anger and sadness. It pisses me off that a performance this incredible was denied an Oscar nomination for reason that I'll probably never understand. It makes me sad that Phillip Alford gave up acting 10 years later after only a couple of TV dramas and one other film-- the James Stewart western Shenandoah. I realize that his heart was probably never really in it, but Alford had the talent to be a big star. If he was this good at 14, just think of the things he could have accomplished as he matured.
For more child acting loving, check out the Rug Rats Blog-a-thon Main Page for more great reads.