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Robert Mulligan, the director of a milestone in American cinema, To Kill A Mockingbird, died late last year – almost unnoticed. Geoff Gardner makes amends.

Just before Christmas the American director Robert Mulligan died at the age of 83. No notice appeared in any of Australia’s newspapers, a measure of a director who hadn’t worked since 1991. Mulligan had fallen well under the radar. Yet for a period in the sixties and seventies, he was a director held in high regard and one of his films, the adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is as loved and revered as the novel on which it was based. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his performance as the lawyer Atticus Finch and it’s a measure of the deep-seated resonance of the role that good hearted lawyers like Major Michael Mori who defended David Hicks, could be nicknamed Atticus by supporters in the media. Mulligan’s golden period was almost entirely confined to his run in the sixties when he collaborated with producer Alan J. Pakula to make a string of successful dramas.

Pakula and Mulligan first met in the heady atmosphere of New York live television drama in the 50s. Born in the Bronx in 1925, Mulligan first got into television as a messenger at CBS and worked his way up to direct live dramas for shows like Playhouse 90. He made his first film, produced by Pakula, in 1957, the baseball drama Fear Strikes Out starring Anthony Perkins. He then went back to television and won an Emmy for a production of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, starring Laurence Olivier.

Mulligan made several feature films including two interesting dramas with Tony Curtis, The Rat Race and The Great Imposter, before he and Pakula reunited for their greatest success, To Kill a Mockingbird. Mulligan got a Best Director and Pakula got a Best Picture Nomination but the film lost out to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Mulligan lost out to Lean. Pakula and Mulligan hit a good streak through the rest of the sixties and made five more films together. The best of them were undoubtedly the two they made with the young Steve McQueen playing musicians, a jazz saxophonist in Love with the Proper Stranger and country rocker in Baby the Rain Must Fall. As they went on the stories got a bit more conventional. Sandy Denis played a young schoolteacher in Up the Down Staircase and Natalie Wood played a Hepburnish part in the quite lavish adaptation of Gavin Lambert’s Hollywood expose Inside Daisy Clover. They flopped as did the dark, near silent western The Stalking Moon with which the partnership ended. Pakula went off to become a rather more successful director than Mulligan ever was.

"a very fine batch of movies"

The Pakula Mulligan partnership seemed to come out of Hollywood’s compartment that allowed a small number of serious movies about interesting/offbeat subjects to get made and distributed by the major studios. The films they made together represent a very fine batch of movies that can be watched again, whatever faults might be discerned, with pleasure. Mulligan worked in the quality sector pretty much all his life but the results, especially after his partnership with Pakula ended, were spotty. David Thomson describes his career as indistinct and tentative and suggested his films don’t live in the memory. Andrew Sarris’ early assessment was vicious in the extreme though he tempered it down by suggesting later he had not made ‘an entirely satisfactory film’. Yet good actors flocked to work with him again and again.

He had one other big hit after the Pakula collaboration, the war time coming of age story, Summer of 42. His final film The Man in the Moon was made rather a long time ago in 1991 but a couple of obituaries found on line praise it highly and Thomson remarks that the director “came back to life with The Man in the Moon, a lovely small film about children growing up in a rural setting – it was To Kill a Mockingbird again and it left the intervening years seeming all the stranger”.

Published February 19, 2009

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Robert Mulligan died at his home in Connecticut on December 20 2008.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Fear Strikes Out

The Rat Race

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