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Television review: Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee on PBS

'American Masters' pairs documentaries about two towering figures of American novel writing. But a certain constraint shows: Each writer had but one novel.

April 02, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in a local courthouse while visting her hometown.
Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in a local courthouse… (Donald Uhrbrock, Time &…)

They were Southern women who wrote novels about race, family and the destructive mores of their native land — so it makes sense that the "American Masters" documentaries about Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee would run back to back Monday night.

It also makes sense that neither of these films would break the two-hour mark — "Margaret Mitchell: An American Rebel" is 55 minutes, "Harper Lee: Hey, Boo" is 90 minutes — because these women shared another characteristic: Each wrote just one book.

Both "Gone With the Wind" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" were record-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning bestsellers and instant American classics that became iconic films. Yet they each remained only children, born from two very different authors who shrank from the literary limelight to live lives that could no longer be called writerly.

Are these two examples of the conventional wisdom that all of us have lurking within one great novel? Or did their phenomenal initial success set the bar too high for a second?

It's fascinating to contemplate, but the absence of more published material makes it tough going for any documentarian.

"Margaret Mitchell" hews to the old-fashioned bio-doc outline and delivers through photographs and interviews a vision of Mitchell as Jo March — a young woman who dressed in trousers from a young age, was raised with an often conflicting sense of self and duty by a strictly Catholic yet suffragette mother, and who longed for the reassurance of her own significance.

One of those inevitable "born storytellers," Mitchell dabbled in journalism, battled depression, exchanged a bad husband for a good one and fought for women's rights while accepting — until later in life — the deplorable state of race civil rights in her native Atlanta. During a bad spell, her husband advised her to stop reading books and start writing one. And so, Scarlett O'Hara was born.

The resulting work, written in bits and pieces, was never taken seriously until a book publisher, seeking new voices from the South, asked to see it. Initially rejecting the book, he later worked closely with Mitchell to edit — and re-edit — what would become the bestselling American novel of all time.

Born a quarter century after Mitchell, Lee was a more determined novelist. Encouraged by her childhood friend Truman Capote, she moved to New York to become a writer. There, Capote helped find her a circle of supportive friends.

One couple eventually gave her money to take a year off from her job as an airline reservation clerk and write her book. Initially titled "Atticus," it was duly rejected by dozens of publishers before eventually becoming the classic it remains today.

"Harper Lee: Hey Boo," which debuted in theaters last year, is also hamstrung by its subject's slim, which is to say, singular "body of work." But it is the far richer and better film about the two novelists.

Writer-director Mary Murphy has several advantages. Her subject, though not part of the film, is still living, as are her contemporaries, including her totally fabulous older sister. Unburdened by the racist taint that surrounds "Gone With the Wind," Murphy brings in a perhaps overly large group of writers, students and stars to discuss the continued relevance and wonders of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Murphy also directly addresses the issue of Lee's retreat from the publishing world and her relationship with Capote — including the rumors that Capote had, if not written "Mockingbird" then certainly helped her with it. The opposite could more persuasively be argued; it's difficult to imagine that Capote's masterpiece "In Cold Blood" could have been written without Lee's help in the initial reporting — a solid Southern lady, she helped the flamboyant Capote gain the trust of the conservative Kansas folks who knew the Clutter family.

That this woman had a hand in not one but two books that changed, in very different ways, the course of American literature — without leaving the social casualties and emotional detritus normally associated with a Great Writer — remains one of the more astonishing stories of 20th century arts. In a world overly confessed yet none the wiser for it, Lee remains a persistent and gently illuminating mystery.

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