One-on-one with Mary Badham, special guest of WSU Symphony

Columnist

I’m someone who likes to know what goes on behind the scenes. Until now, I could only hear those stories from articles or documentaries. I always wanted to be the person asking the questions. 

That opportunity came when I got the chance to speak to Mary Badham, the actress nominated at age 10 for an Oscar as best supporting actress for playing the role of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She visited Wichita State last week as a special guest for a performance of the score for the film by the WSU Symphony Orchestra.   

Since the film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, I wanted to know what Badham thought made it last all of these years.

“I think ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has such strong family messages. What better father than Atticus?” Badham said. “It has such important lessons in life that we need to learn: that an education is very important and that keeping an open mind and discussion is important. It is a good look at our historical background in our country with racial problems. This film and book touches upon all of those issues.” 

Of the anecdotes she shared about the filming of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the one I found the most interesting was how her brother, John Badham, a renowned film director, reacted to his little sister’s success. 

“My brother was at Yale studying drama and philosophy,” Badham said. “He got phone calls from my mother saying how his little sister was cast in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and how she was nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for that, but he’s gone on to great success with his films, so he’s made it where he wanted to go.”  

Something that I always wondered about was how actors view their works that were filmed in black and white. I wondered if Badham’s view of the film would allow her to “fill in the color” with her personal recollection of actually being there. Although she could remember details like her dress being pink, that didn’t distract her from the advantage black and white films have over color.

“We could have done it in color, but it fit the time period and the feeling, making it much more dramatic,” Badham said. “The beauty of black and white film is that you can do so much more with it than you can with color. You can get so much more drama with lighting and staging. The whole reason we have blood, gore and guts in color is because there’s no writing behind it.

“Look at film noir and notice the tension. It’s palpable. There are so many films that have so much power and you don’t have to have all of the verbiage.” 

I asked what Badham’s feelings might have about a remake of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She responded with a flat-out “no.” “I never want to see a remake,” she said.

However, the idea of a follow up to “To Kill a Mockingbird” was something Badham felt more open about in some ways. She cited how some English teachers have their students come up with ideas that incorporate history lessons. 

In regard to her co-star Phillip Alford, who played her brother Jem in the film, Badham said he now works for a major construction company and was one of the first Americans in Kuwait after the war and put in charge of rebuilding hospitals and schools. 

Despite being an Academy Award-nominated actress, Badham said she had to quit the film business, largely due to the turbulence.

A film that she auditioned for was deceptive by signing actors to a contract and radically rewriting the script. With the support of her family, Badham decided to pursue an education, instead of furthering her acting career. 

Badham talked about her life out of the film business, including when she wanted to be a horse veterinarian, but restrictions placed on her prevented it. When she was older, she worked for years at a community college. One story she recalled was how an illiterate 36-year-old man came seeking her help, so that he could be someone for his son to look up to. 

“You have to find something that excites you,” Badham said, “Something that makes your heart beat faster. Something that makes you want to jump out of bed and do it every day.”

“For me, I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I’ve done a little bit of everything. I didn’t make it to where I wanted to go, but I’ve had the best life. I’ve had a normal life, I’ve had a happy life.”

I must say that it was quite a pleasure to speak with Mary Badham, not just about her contribution to film, but getting to know her as person, who truly hold the values “To Kill a Mockingbird” presented and lives through them in her life as an adult.